Who knew a Canadian biopic of an infamous smartphone could be this entertaining, even poignant and moving? I am here to tell you today’s world premiere Berlin Film Festival competition entry BlackBerry is all that and more.
In the hands of co-writer (with Matthew Miller), director and co-star Matt Johnson (The Dirties), this long and winding tale of the rise and fall of the BlackBerry, the revolutionary device that first combined a computer with a phone all in one, is at once wonderfully funny, suspenseful and ultimately tragic. Here is a business story that has it all, and has much in common with other movies that focus on iconic tales of new-age businesses like The Social Network, Moneyball and The Big Short. Those movies had the likes of Aaron Sorkin and Adam McKay behind them, and this one ought to really put its chief architect Johnson on the cinematic map.
Centering on nerdy and inventive Mike Lazaridis (a terrific and never better Jay Baruchel) and Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton — sensational), Johnson’s film starts in 1996 with the emergence of this unheard of idea of a phone that can also send and receive emails with its keyboard built into a magical device no one in the tech world had achieved before these Canadian dreamers actually found a way to make it work.
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But first it is Lazaridis and his freewheeling, loopy but tech-smart buddy Douglas Fregin (played endearingly by Johnson), along with their unsophisticated tech-y friends, who are out to convince the world they can deliver on the promise of their then unnamed invention. Once they bring a sharp and uber-aggressive businessman, Balsillie, into their company Research In Motion, an idea from nerd-land turns into a reality — especially when Balsillie manages to convince Bell Atlantic, particularly chief skeptic John Woodman (Saul Rubinek), of its value for their servers.
On its way to market the BlackBerry must overcome all sorts of obstacles and impossible business deals, but by the early aughts it is a superstar, beloved by everyone from U.S. presidents to celebrities to average joes — a life-changing communication device. It is a dream come true until shady business deals, infighting and most damaging Steve Jobs and the iPhone combine to bring it crashing down.
Johnson tells the whole saga, soup to nuts, in a highly entertaining and fast-moving fashion that keeps you riveted throughout. You really find yourself rooting for these guys, particularly Lazaridis and Fregin and their ragtag team of tech nerds who hold a world-changing device in their hands, until they don’t. At its heart it is an underdog story straight from the heart of the ironically named Waterloo, Ontario, where it all began, but also a cautionary warning that what goes up must come down. In the fast-moving technological age in which we live, the epic tale of the BlackBerry now plays like a period piece, a nostalgic look back for people like me who deeply loved that little Canadian device and didn’t want to, but ultimately had to, succumb, like Adam, to the temptations of the Apple.
Baruchel, silver-haired for the role, is perfectly cast as a guy with an idea but not really the financial or corporate sense to make it reality. Howerton (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia) however steals the movie with a dynamic turn as a hard-core, cunning business guy who won’t take no for an answer as he wills the success of this smartphone into being; he drives this movie like J.K. Simmons drove Whiplash. Among the supporting cast is fine work from Rubinek, Rich Sommer, Cary Elwes, Sungwon Cho and Michael Ironside, the latter being the hard-nosed fearsome outsider executive brought in to turn this crew into an efficient factory. Johnson also writes himself a juicy role as the likeable Doug who is the reverse of a corporate suit but good-hearted all the way.
Based on the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall Of Blackberry by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, the filmmakers have taken a tech-heavy business book and given it life, soul and sorrow in the most human of terms, and that is no easy undertaking. Producers are Niv Fichman, Matthew Miller, Fraser Ash and Kevin Krikst. IFC has domestic distribution, while Paramount has it worldwide outside of the U.S..
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