Running Time: 120 mins
UK Distributor: National Amusements
UK Release Date: 6 October 2023
WHO’S IN BLACKBERRY?
Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Rich Sommer, Michael Ironside, Martin Donovan, Michelle Giroux, SungWon Cho, Mark Critch, Saul Rubinek, Cary Elwes, Ben Petrie
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Matt Johnson (director, writer), Matthew Miller (writer, producer), Fraser Ash, Niv Fichman and Kevin Krikst (producers), Jay McCarol (composer), Jared Raab (cinematographer), Curt Lobb (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
The rise and fall of the world’s first smartphone, the BlackBerry…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON BLACKBERRY?
One of the most unexpected trends of 2023 has been movies about popular items: Air detailed the origins of the Air Jordan sneakers; Tetris dramatized the tense Cold War battle for gaming rights to the classic video game; The Beanie Bubble is pretty self-explanatory; hell, even the highest-grossing film so far this year is all about a Barbie doll.
But BlackBerry, the fascinating story behind the world’s first smartphone, is an immediate stand-out for its abrasive and uncomfortably funny take on the corporate complications that ultimately wiped the device off the face of the earth, despite changing the world of technology forever.
Beginning in 1996, we first meet Canadian entrepreneurs Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson, also the film’s director and co-writer) as they’re hurriedly pitching to short-tempered businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) their idea for a new cellular device – then known as the “PocketLink” – that could revolutionise the way people communicate. Eventually intrigued by their idea, Balsillie demands to be named co-CEO of their company Research in Motion and given a third of its stock, while in return he helps Lazaridis and Fregin attract investors for the device that is eventually renamed the “BlackBerry”. However, as demand for the product becomes more and more insatiable, Balsillie makes a number of questionable business decisions that ultimately leave Lazaridis, Fregin, their whole company, and the BlackBerry itself in jeopardy – and that’s before Steve Jobs introduces a certain iPhone to the world.
There is a truly tense nature to BlackBerry, something that Johnson and co-writer Matthew Miller capture with a mixture of high-strung dialogue and pressure-cooker pacing that give scenes an added kick of passive-aggressiveness. Relatively calm locations like restaurants and board room meetings are made so much more suspenseful by the handheld camerawork which, combined with the dimly-lit cinematography, creates an atmosphere made up almost entirely of bubbling anxiety. Johnson’s direction is tightly-wound enough to leave you on the verge of a heart attack when someone starts tripping up over their words, in front of people who could make or break them at any moment they choose.
Even still, Johnson and Miller’s script keeps things from becoming too unbearable by inserting a pretty strong sense of humour that positions the rise and fall of the BlackBerry as a corporate farce that you could see other satirists like Adam McKay or Armando Iannucci putting their fingerprints all over. There are times when the film gets some good laughs out of the desperate lengths that some of these people are willing to go in order to save their own skins, particularly later on when some of their business practises finally start to catch up with them. In between are plenty of amusing character moments that make some of them a bit more interesting outside of their yin-yang personalities, such as Fregin attempting to make his company somewhere that employees can chill out as well as work, including regular movie nights and having arcade games on the work floor, until that’s all shut down by the powers that be.
Performers like Jay Baruchel, Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, Cary Elwes (as a sneering business rival looking to make a hostile takeover of the company) and even Johnson himself expertly bring plenty of life to their fictionalised takes on some of the biggest names behind BlackBerry and its ultimate demise. However, the moment he first shows up on-screen with a bald scalp and a permanent scowl across his face, it is clear that this is Glenn Howerton’s show. As Jim Balsillie, the actor seems to be channelling a version of Succession’s Kendall Roy from an alternate universe (funnily enough, legend has it that Howerton auditioned for the role before losing out to Jeremy Strong), with the hostile mannerisms of a playboy businessman that become more and more unhinged as the BlackBerry comfortably dominates roughly 45% of the pre-iPhone smartphone market. Howerton is simply magnetic here, commanding the screen every time he’s there and putting all his energy into making this caricaturist businessman feel so much more real than he perhaps was on paper – and yes, I am aware it is a depiction of an actual person, but given reports that the real Balsillie was reportedly amused by his unfavourable portrayal here, I don’t think even he seems to care about how he comes across in this film.
Overall, it is a hugely enjoyable and often pretty funny takedown of the business bugs that short-circuited a revolutionary device, with plenty of solid writing and direction, and especially acting, to turn a film about a mobile phone with a physical keyboard – unthinkable in today’s world! – into a compelling and engaging cinematic delight.
SO, TO SUM UP…
BlackBerry dramatizes the rise and fall of the pioneering smartphone with an abrasive but also rather funny satirical attitude that the filmmaking, and a particularly outstanding turn by Glenn Howerton, inserts plenty of darkly farcical life into.