Blackberry Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Matt Johnson
Stars: Jay Baruchel, Matt Johnson, Glenn Howerton, Martin Donovan, Michael Ironside, Saul Rubinek, Cary Elwes.
During the late 90s and early 2000s the pioneering portable communications device the Blackberry, the phone with a keyboard, dominated the tech market. At its peak the iconic device made up 45% of the cell phone market and had some 85 million subscribers (including President Barak Obama). But then a combination of bruised egos, hubris, corporate greed, shady business deals and rival tech companies and their developments soon killed the product.
This dramedy from Canadian director Matt Johnson (the low budget 2013 found footage drama The Dirties, etc) and longtime producing partner and co-writer Matthew Miller depicts the story of the creation of the must have device, the attempts to market it and its demise. Such a story doesn’t sound exciting or engaging on the surface, but Johnson gives it a flashy style and sharp-edged humour as he turns it into a workplace comedy that will remind many of the tv series The Office.
Johnson himself takes on the role of Doug Fregin, who established the small tech development company Research In Motion alongside his nerdy friend and engineer Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel, from How To Train Your Dragon, etc). Fregin is still something of a man child who wears t-shirts, jogging shorts and a head band and has a slacker approach to his work ethic. The pair were trying to sell their pocketlink cellular device to USRobotics, a giant corporation, but without much business experience they were being ripped off.
Enter arrogant and foul-mouthed businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia) who saw the phone’s potential. He bullied his way into the small company, and reshaped it, forcing the employees to give up their fratboy ways (movie nights and playing video games on the work computers) and become more focused on creating and marketing their product. Balsillie also became co-CEO of the company and chief driving force behind its early successes before he became distracted by his thwarted efforts to by a major NHL franchise.
Blackberry is based on the 2015 nonfiction book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall Of Blackberry by journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. Johnson and Miller obviously take some liberties with the facts for dramatic purpose, and they infuse the potentially dry material with suspense and energy, although some of the technical talk and details will go over the head of many in the audience. Johnson also brings a documentary-like approach to the material with lots of fast edits. Johnson’s frequent cinematographer Jared Raab bathes the film in a 90s aesthetic, which is reinforced with the soundtrack choices and pop cultural references. Production designer Adam Belanger has done a superb job of recreating the chaotic and cluttered offices and messy workspaces of RIM.
Johnson himself brings an endearing quality but a goofy energy to his performance as the loud and boisterous Fregin. Howerton is a standout as the aggressive, verbally abusive and gruff Balsillie, who doesn’t pull his punches. Cast largely against type Baruchel seems a little uncomfortable in an essentially straight role as the obsessive Lazaridis. Michael Ironside lends his usual fearsome screen persona to his role as Charles Purdy, a hard-nosed businessman brought in to essentially straighten out the rather eccentric crew of factory workers.
Blackberry makes a fine companion piece to those other films that have followed the development of the modern technology we now take for granted and the creative people behind them – films such as David Fincher’s The Social Network about the founding of Facebook, with Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg; Jobs with Ashton Kutcher as the eponymous genius behind Apple and the I-phone and I-Pod; and Steve Jobs with Michael Fassbender in a slightly different take on the man.