Opening at Cinema Center this weekend, the riveting new docudrama BlackBerry stars Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis, the founder of tech startup Research In Motion. We meet Mike and his cohort Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson) in 1996, as they shuffle their PocketLink presentation posters and easel across a parking lot to pitch to executive Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), who initially seems intensely disinterested in their product. After getting fired from his position, Jim pays a visit to RIM and accepts their offer to take over as co-CEO to help right the company following poor business acumen. Together, they made BlackBerry, a once-ubiquitous line of smartphones that forever changed how we receive information and communicate with one another. But as impressively as the company rose, it’s not nearly as impressive as how quickly it fell.
It’s easy to look at a film like BlackBerry and compare it to something like The Social Network, another movie about personalities clashing at the forefront of a technological revolution. There are, of course, similarities to be found in the Zuckerberg-Saverin-Parker dynamic between the three main characters here and both films sport scripts that marry zippy dialogue with technical information. But BlackBerry has a very different look and feel to it, similar to in-the-room urgency of The Big Short but without the incessant winks to the camera. It feels like cinematographer Jared Raab is actually capturing these events as they’re unfolding and he’s just doing his best to get as much footage as he can. Audiences are more accustomed to this faux-documentary aesthetic thanks to shows like The Office and Modern Family but the tone here is obviously much more tense and business-minded.
That’s not to say that BlackBerry doesn’t have its share of laughs. After all, Howerton is best known for his work on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Baruchel has been in plenty of comedies over the years. Howerton carries over elements of that Dennis Reynolds fire and hubris, letting loose scorched-earth f-bombs and unearned confidence across office bullpens and board rooms. Playing a nerdy developer isn’t outside of Baruchel’s wheelhouse but there’s growth beyond that in this performance and he finds the humor in the character’s sometimes awkward transition to tech mogul. Director and co-writer Matt Johnson also generates hilarious moments in what don’t typically seem like scenes of comedy. During a tirade from a fierce COO played by Michael Ironside, Johnson holds on a shot of a confused developer just long enough for the punchline to land.
If we’ve seen some of the dramatic beats from BlackBerry‘s first hour before in films about tech companies taking off, it only emphasizes how much of the second hour is quite different from these other stories. It’s not just fascinating how quickly RIM and the BlackBerry line fell but just how inevitable their demise was given how spectacularly the company was mismanaged. It’s a wonder that Lazaridis and Balsillie ever saw eye-to-eye at any point in their collaboration but the chasm that develops between their business ethics and professional intentions is truly staggering. Since we already know that the BlackBerry is totally defunct, we know that we’re watching a catastrophic car crash just waiting to happen, in this case due to someone texting on their QWERTY keyboard while driving.
The screenplay that Johnson has co-written with Matthew Miller peppers in insight about the seeds of innovation and the earnest desire to make the world better through technology. As cynical as Balsillie is about marketing their product, Lazaridis and Fregin seemed to have created PocketLink after seeing futuristic communication from sci-fi staples like Star Trek and Blade Runner. RIM took their company movie nights seriously, not just to kick back and have fun but take mental notes on what could actually be possible when tinkering around with their components. Without Balsillie, it’s likely their designs would’ve never seen the light of day but it’s doubtful their company would have imploded so fantastically either. As a guide for how not to run a tech startup and a constantly engaging Icarus tale with outstanding performances, BlackBerry bears the fruit of its labor.
Score – 4/5
Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Book Club: The Next Chapter, starring Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda, is a romcom reuniting four elderly best friends as they take their book club to Italy for a fun girls’ trip that turns into a once-in-a-lifetime cross-country adventure.
Hypnotic, starring Ben Affleck and Alice Braga, is a sci-fi action thriller which follows a detective as he investigates a mystery involving his missing daughter and a secret government program surrounding a group of powerful hypnotists.
Knights Of The Zodiac, starring Mackenyu and Famke Janssen, is a fantasy action movie about a street orphan who discovers that he is destined to protect a goddess of war who is reincarnated in the body of a young girl.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup