April 24, 2023
This review was originally published at the 2023 Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Film Festival. IFC releases the film in theaters on May 12.
Out of all the “corporate biopics” that were on the docket for 2023, none piqued my interest more than BlackBerry. The allure of the story came solely from the predictability of the outcome, as everyone knows Nike made billions off of the Air Jordan brand and that Tetris would become one of the world's most popular video game franchises. But do people really know what happened to BlackBerry, the phone that one executive referred to as “CrackBerry” due to its dominant popularity within the business landscape? I’m guessing they don’t, as a little-known product called the iPhone consumed all the attention at that transitional moment.
But before we get ahead of ourselves with all that doom and gloom, let's jump back to the hopeful beginnings.
The year is 1992. Mike Lazarides (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson, also serving as co-writer and director) have just founded Research in Motion in Ontario and are going around to investors pitching their idea for a revolutionary new phone that is capable of being an all-in-one business machine. While their idea is brilliant, the duo have little to no business acumen, which is illustrated by the laissez-faire way they approach their equally bright workers. Luckily, one of their “so bad it’s good” business pitches catches the attention of the power-hungry Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), who sees the potential for this product. He jumps ship in exchange for becoming co-CEO with Lazarides, making them the new Jobs and Wozniak.
Success comes quickly in the form of market domination and billions of dollars in market capitalization. But the fall came quicker when the actual Steve Jobs came out with a phone that has a keyboard on the screen (“Who would want that!?” yells Lazarides during the Apple announcement). The rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, you could just read the Wikipedia article on BlackBerry to get all of that information. But Johnson is a smart enough writer and director, invoking a seriocomic sensibility at every turn. The camera is handheld and observational, with zooms similar to The Office and Succession. You laugh along with these misfits as they race to their doom, but you also never look down upon them. Their brilliance is always on display, even if Jay McCarrol’s electronic score (borrowing heavily from The Social Network) does most of the heavy lifting as tech-heavy terms like “network interface” and “carrier capacity” are thrown around to land credibility.
Baruchel’s Lazarides is a charisma void. He’s someone that would say thank you after being told to fuck off, which happens more than a few times as Balsillie’s ambition starts outgrowing his capabilities. Howerton is brilliantly cast, as he essentially plays his character of Dennis from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, just with a quite obvious bald cap. And then there’s also Johnson as the man-child of the group, who always sees work as an opportunity to have fun. But his idea of fun is not just about slacking off, it’s about creating a family ecosystem that produces new ideas through support and nurturing, something a lot of other tech companies miserably tried to emulate through bureaucracy.
Time has not been an ally for the BlackBerry phone, but I believe it will be for this movie. While the other movies in this growing subgenre built themselves largely around the iconography of the brand, Johnson always has his sights set on the people behind the machine, which is what makes this specific story that much more compelling and rewatchable.