‘BlackBerry’ Review: A Ferocious and Nearly Unrecognizable Glenn Howerton Steals This Rowdy Tech-World SatireFebruary 17, 2023
For a hot minute, it looked like BlackBerry might control the smartphone market. They got there first, figuring out how to use the existing data network to put email in users’ hands. Sure, it all came packaged in a device as thick and unwieldy as a slice of French toast — too big for most people’s pockets, not at all comfortable to hold up to one’s ear. Still, Canada-based electronics company Research in Motion revolutionized how mobile phones worked and what they could do, making billionaires of its co-founders. So what happened?
Frantic, irreverent and endearingly scrappy, “BlackBerry” spins comedy from the seat-of-their-pants launch and subsequent flame-out of “that phone that people had before they bought an iPhone,” as one character puts it. Directed by Matt Johnson — the renegade mock-doc helmer responsible for 2013 Slamdance winner “The Dirties” and moon-landing hoax “Project Avalanche” — from a script he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Matthew Miller, this sly tech-world satire freely extrapolates from journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book “Losing the Signal,” refashioning that wild ride into something that approximates their favorite movies.
The outrageous, often quotable dialogue draws inspiration from Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet (whose “Glengarry Glen Ross” is actually name-dropped by the characters). “I’ll keep firing until this room is not full of little children playing with their little penises,” Michael Ironside growls at one point, playing the company’s bulldog COO, seemingly the only adult in the room. Later, forced to use a pay phone after BlackBerry overloads the network, Glenn Howerton smashes the receiver to pieces while screaming, “There are three reasons people buy our phones. … They. Fucking. Work!” Lines like that fit well with DP Jared Raab’s grody, handheld style, which suggests a cross between “The Office” and “In the Loop,” shot from across parking lots and the far side of cluttered workspaces.
No one would mistake this for a documentary, and yet, Johnson adopts the voyeuristic cues that give audiences a you-are-there feel. If the cast that Johnson has assembled hardly looks old enough to remember the BlackBerry, that perversely winds up working to the film’s advantage. Canadian actor Jay Baruchel still has the soft-chinned face of a teenager, which makes him an odd choice to play BlackBerry superbrain Mike Lazaridis, with his silver-toned, Julian Assange hair. Johnson opts to play RIM co-founder Douglas Fregin as a headband-wearing slob, a brilliant “goof” (and reliably grating comic foil) who seems to care more about getting to work with his friends than becoming a billionaire.
And then there’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” star Howerton, the MVP in an all-around terrific ensemble, who shaved the top of his head to play balding, no-nonsense Jim Balsillie. Like a shark in the kiddie pool, Howerton delivers the kind of performance that can make a career, or force audiences to totally reconsider an actor’s potential. Jim’s ruthless business instincts run directly counter to the nerds’ undisciplined approach. He agrees to leave his job (technically, he’s already been fired and has no other options) and steer RIM to delivering on its promise — the one Mike and Doug fumbled to articulate in the film’s haphazard opening pitch session, quoting their high school shop teacher: “The person who puts a computer inside a phone will change the world.”
Cruising around in a beat-up Honda hatchback, the duo — and the rest of the RIM team — come across as overgrown toddlers, incapable of cleaning their own rooms. They’re far too rowdy and immature to focus on the task at hand, wasting valuable time playing Command & Conquer at the office, where stacks of defective modems line the walls and someone stuck a toilet plunger on top of a computer monitor. Rarely has a film captured the spirit of creative chaos that characterizes so much of Silicon Valley — although it’s important to note that RIM’s rise-and-fall trajectory took place half a continent away in Waterloo, Ontario.
This is a Canadian story, told by Canadian filmmakers, who treat the whole loony affair as a matter of national pride. Sure, it’s full of hubris, from Mike’s incredulity at the notion that consumers would prefer a keyboard-free device (one of the iPhone’s many design improvements) to Jim’s illegal strategy of backdating stock options to lure engineers from rival companies like Google. But “BlackBerry” is surprisingly charitable to the parties involved, acknowledging that these visionaries, while making it up as they go along, still managed to change the way the world communicates. Taking a page from “The Social Network,” it follows these two altogether-too-polite besties through the ringer, as they try to maintain their friendship amid the financial pressure that running a successful tech company imposes.
Avoiding the pitfalls of getting dry or technical, Johnson juices up moments when the company was under intense pressure to deliver, like the all-night session to develop a prototype it could present to Bell Atlantic. “BlackBerry” shows Mike and his RIM team raiding an electronics store, buying pocket calculators and Speak & Spell toys to mock up a clumsy demo model — which Mike subsequently forgets in the back of the taxi. Saul Rubinek patiently listens to Jim’s pitch and then replies, “You are not a tech guy, are you?” Even more satisfying is the stretch that comes right after Palm honcho Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes) threatens a hostile takeover, as Jim scrambles to boost the stock price so that can’t happen. The mad-hustle montage feels like something out of “Wall Street,” or better yet, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
There are some who look back fondly on the BlackBerry and the way it let them hammer out emails with their thumbs. It’s a wistfulness on par with how Blockbuster has made a minor comeback for those who claim nostalgia for late fees and the obligation of having to rewind VHS tapes. For most, the BlackBerry was a primitive product that served its purpose until something better came along — namely, the Apple iPhone. And though Johnson’s movie suggests other factors may have contributed to its demise, it’s hard to ignore that the company got out-innovated in the end. The film, at least, feels fresh, making geek history more entertaining than it has any right to be.
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