Review: “Blackberry”

Ask most people now, and they probably would consider the BlackBerry a bit of a joke. One of the first iterations of the smartphone, the rapid decline of the company paired with the design of the phone itself—rather clunky, with a keyboard that takes up half of its surface, compared with the sleek all-touchscreen iPhone—would quickly prompt the device, once an elite status symbol, to be considered uncool, a fad from a bygone era that exploded for a brief period of time and just as quickly petered away. But the truth is, the era of BlackBerry’s dominance wasn’t that long ago. The number of BlackBerry subscribers peaked in 2011, and BlackBerry Limited (a Canadian company originally founded under the name Research in Motion, or RIM) didn’t cease production of the BlackBerry until 2016.

It’s easy to point to the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 as the beginning of the end of the BlackBerry, but as with most things, there’s more to the story. Co-writers Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller bill their succinctly-titled film BlackBerry as a “fictionalization” of the rise and fall of the world’s first smartphone, adapted from the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry. Johnson directs as well as co-stars as RIM co-founder Doug Fregin, while Miller serves as producer, and the result of their collaboration is a mid-budget delight, a funny and somber charting of the ways that the corporate machine can chew up and spit out even the smartest people with the most genius ideas.

The engineers of RIM in “BlackBerry”; photo courtesy IFC Films

BlackBerry opens in 1996 with a pitch meeting: Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Fregin, his best friend and partner in creating RIM, are pitching a phone they invented to entrepreneur Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton). It isn’t exactly the BlackBerry (they call it the Pocket Link) but it features the core concept behind it; as Fregin describes, “a pager, a cell phone, and an email machine all in one thing.” The pitch goes horribly, the scene immediately establishing the film’s quasi-docudrama camerawork and sense of humor: Lazaridus mumbling a prepared speech he reads directly from index cards, Fregin fumbling over their product posters and making a Star Wars reference to Balsillie that falls flat. Balsillie would later tell them that it was the worst product pitch he’d ever seen, but he does see them again. That’s because there’s something about Balsillie that Lazaridis and Fregin don’t know yet: he’s just been fired from his job. With nowhere else to go, he inserts himself into the duo’s floundering start-up, which has just been barely coasting by, the millions of dollars owed them by a client yet to be paid. Balsillie joins his business savvy with RIM’s tech savvy, turning what they’d later name the BlackBerry into an overnight success.

BlackBerry is set over three distinct periods: 1999, when the BlackBerry phone first launched; 2003, which sees the three leads grappling with that success; and 2007, when outside forces, competition from rivals, and the temptation to flirt with disaster that gobs of money sometimes brings Blackberry to its knees. BlackBerry rarely ventures outside the confines of the office or executive meetings, which sometimes causes it to feel a tad constricted, although montages of clips cut in here and there illustrate the state of the world and contemporary fads for the viewer. But that approach also maintains a tight focus on the three leads and how their success changes them and their relationships with each other. It helps that those three leads are delivering some of the most propulsive and entertaining performances of the year too. Johnson plays Fregin as the ultimate nerd—he’s always sporting pop culture T-shirts and sweatbands—but he’s also the fun one, the glue who keeps all the engineers together, even when they have to pull long hours. He’s the who, when their initial pitch meeting goes south, instigates an “emergency movie night” for all the guys to get together and watch a favorite (in this case, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Instead of watching the movie, Lazaridis is the one who hangs back, tinkering with new, catchier names for their phone. Baruchel made a name for himself in comedies, but he proves here how great he is when given more dramatic fare too. Lazaridis is caught between Fregin and Balsillie, his desire to make BlackBerry a success while the others are goofing around throws his long-time friendships into jeopardy; a newspaper clipping glimpsed in the background of an early scene tells us all we need to know about what’s driving him, that he was a genius student who dropped out of school to start RIM. Baruchel is completely convincing as an intelligent man who is way out of his depth; when meetings go wrong, he always appears to be on the verge of tears. And he’s the one who makes the film’s perfect capper of a finale just a wee bit more heart-breaking than it might have been otherwise. And then there’s Howerton, who totally throws himself into Balsillie’s single-minded drive to make money. He’s hard, he screams a lot, he voraciously devours everyone and everything in his path, and it’s riveting to watch him do so. Particularly in the film’s final act, in which he begins throwing out money he doesn’t actually have (including repeatedly trying and failing to buy various NHL teams with the intention of moving them to Ontario) in ways that nearly induce Uncuts Gems levels of anxiety. The leads are surrounded by supporting players who craft memorably amusing characters out of even the smallest scenes, including Rich Sommer, a wonderfully deadpan SungWon Cho, and Cary Elwes as Carl Yankowski, the unhinged CEO of BlackBerry rival Palm Pilot.

Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis and Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie in “BlackBerry”; photo courtesy IFC Films

Johnson and Miller’s is sharp and frequently feels instantly quotable, focusing on the human element of the story while avoiding becoming too bogged down in technical jargon. The production design is remarkably accurate, and it’s fun to see styles and technology evolve as time marches on within the film. It’s comparable to another recent crowd-pleaser about a product launch, Ben Affleck’s Air Jordan movie Air (it even boasts a similar opening montage that orients the viewer within the film’s era and subject matter), but BlackBerry, as funny as it is, possesses a note of tragedy. Ultimately, BlackBerry isn’t really about the BlackBerry phone at all, but about a handful of people who brush up against fame and fortune, only to lose it all through a few bad decisions. And watching it all unfold is as pleasing as the click of the keys on a BlackBerry keyboard.

BlackBerry is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 119 minutes. Rated R.

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