Tech icons Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs have inspired high-profile dramas like The social network And Steve Jobs. But for Mike Lazaridis, Doug Fregin and Jim Balsillie, the minds behind the revolutionary Blackberry, their rise and fall is comedy. Or at least it is as presented by co-writer, director and co-star Matt Johnson in the frenetic Blackberry.
Presenting its North American premiere at the SXSW Festival, Blackberry is in good company with Tetris, another tech-centric biopic that turns potentially boring business questions into laugh-out-loud bits. Beyond their surface similarities, both films make or break because of their central cast.
What is Blackberry about?
In 1996, Doug (Johnson) and Mike (Jay Baruchel in a shimmering silver wig) fell into an encounter that would change their lives forever. Inventor besties aren’t much to watch. Still decked out in a sweatband, boyish graphic tees and athletic shorts, Doug’s disdain for business as usual is as pungent as his tattered headgear. Meanwhile, Mike, wearing geeky aviator glasses and a shirt the color of an old envelope, looks more like an unassuming bank clerk than the next big tech star. It’s no surprise, then, that Jim (Glenn Howerton shaved into a bald menace) can barely contain his revulsion. But a good idea is a good idea, and even with their clunky presentation – “a cell phone and email all in one” – it’s clear that it’s a good idea.
Despite their personality clashes and bouts of mistrust, the Canadian trio are turning this hybrid device into a whole new industry. Blackberry traces their rocky beginnings, their heady success, and then the outrageous manipulations — and crimes — committed to try to keep them on top of the smartphone game once the iPhone arrived.
Blackberry is an uplifting tale shaken with humor and heart.
Through the three intertwining arcs of Doug, Mike, and Jim, the script (co-written by Johnson and Matthew Miller) traces a stark story of Goofus versus Greed. Doug is the kind of guy who will ostensibly quote star wars into a business pitch and fight passionately to preserve silly office traditions, like the quirky placement of a dishwasher and a weekly movie night – deadlines are damned! But as the potential of their business grows, Mike loses himself – as Doug might say – to the dark side.
Jim, a shark in a suit, is still working his way up the corporate ladder, and he won’t suffer from fools or loafers. Where Johnson brings almost obnoxious behavior to Mike, Howerton channels the comedic rage he’s shown throughout. Philadelphia is always sunny to a ruthless point, plunging him mercilessly into BlackBerry’s corporate culture. Of course, at first Mike pushes back to preserve the integrity of his invention and the loyalty of his employees. But money changes people. By the time Blackberry hits his predictable mid-movie makeover, Mike looks sharper in more ways than one.
Glenn Howerton strikes hilarity; Jay Baruchel struggles in the role of an upright man.
Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie in “BlackBerry”.
Credit: IFC Films
Amid business meetings, heated contract negotiations and screaming matches, Blackberry is less interested in the history of the phone and more in the battle for Mike’s soul. Johnson portrays himself and his candid exuberance as the goofy angel on Mike’s shoulder, while Howerton is a capitalist devil. They both deliver performances that erase the cobwebs of prestige biopics in favor of something funnier and fiercer. As long Sunny fan, Howerton’s shards alone do Blackberry worth watching. Unfortunately, Baruchel in its center is fumbling.
A comedic actor who made his mark playing lovable goofs, he’s oddly presented as a mellow introvert who mumbles and emotes through a tediously suppressed expression. Baruchel is serious in his portrayal, shedding the jovial smile and donning a stiff physique that speaks to Mike’s internalized struggle. But he never quite clicks into the role, feeling like a drag amid the warring dragons. Without punchlines or guts, Baruchel is lost. And since his character is the emotional stake of the film, Blackberry never quite come together.
As a filmmaker, Johnson’s energy is contagious. Ahead of the SXSW premiere, he took to the stage in Doug’s costume, excitedly chatting with the audience about the cuts made to the film since its release. World premiere at the Berlinale.(Opens in a new tab) Its vaguely chaotic vibrations infuse Blackberry with jerky pacing, a race through plot, edits, and stock footage using precision-captured stock characters. For example, Michael Ironside crackles like a business bully, while Rich Sommer warmly shrugs his shoulders like a humble but resourceful nerd.
Even if you don’t know the story behind Blackberrybased on the book lose signal by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, you might well predict that, because tech icons in movies rarely get happy endings in Hollywood. So Johnson wastes no time cleverly, moving quickly – but not quite gracefully – through plot points, occasionally resting to savor character moments and satisfaction, including the one drew cheers from the tech-savvy SXSW audience.
Although a bumpy ride at times, Johnson brings plenty of serious nostalgia for that era to the film with a soundtrack that includes Joy Division, Moby and Marc Morrison(Opens in a new tab)as well as accessory elements such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II on VHS, and, of course, the cathartic click of the keys on the titular device. Overall the trip is more joyous than rocky. While not in the midst of this year’s most heartbreaking comedies, Blackberry manages to find the humor in the heartbreak of this true tale, delivering a simple yet satisfying ending.
Blackberry made its world premiere at SXSW 2023; a theatrical release will follow on May 12.