Ace performances from Glenn Howerton and Jay Baruchel make BlackBerry a brisk, intense dramedy about the original smartphone.
The tricky thing about movies “based on a true story” is that fiction is usually more exciting than fact. Sure it’s true that the housing market collapse of 2008 actually took place over years of routine mortgage defaults and stock buying, but it’s more fun to speed through that time period while a Ludacris song plays in the background. The origins of Facebook probably happened over many late periods of quiet coding and sleepless nights, but it’s better to show it intercut with a night of sexy Harvard frat parties and goofy drinking. So how do you take a story about the rise and fall of a cell phone and make it impossible to look away from? Character, and a whole lot of visual pressure.
That’s the secret weapon of Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry, an electric comedy-drama that uses its obvious influences not as an excuse for existing but as a launching pad to tell a thrilling story about ego in the tech world. There are two sides to that ego, actually: one from Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), the shy tech developer in Waterloo, Ontario who knows he can build or fix any device. If only he had the nerve to speak up about his talents and not rely on his dorky friend Doug (Matt Johnson) to do all the talking for him.
On the flip side is Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a sharp-dressed huckster with an even sharper tongue who desperately wants to be a big shot and will bulldoze anyone to get that respect. One day in 1996, Mike and Doug have a meeting with Jim to get support for an idea they have. A cell phone that can also send and receive emails on a free wireless network that no other device can access. Jim doesn’t take Mike’s awkwardness or Doug’s Doom t-shirt seriously, but he needs a big idea to take him to the top. So he lights a fire under their asses (by sheer intimidation, obviously) and births something revolutionary: the BlackBerry.
The Social Network meets The Big Short.
From there, the company on the brink of ruin sells half a million units and becomes a phenomenon. But Jim wants to sell more and Mike needs to keep innovating. So now the fun-loving geek hub that birthed the iconic cell phone is now under the thumbs of a money-hungry shark and an unchallenged inventor who aren’t prepared for the seismic shift in technology coming their way.
As mentioned, BlackBerry has two clear influences: the nasty character drama of The Social Network and the shaky documentary camerawork of The Big Short. As director, Johnson is no David Fincher, but the script he penned with Matthew Miller (Nirvana the Band the Show) — adapted from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book Losing the Signal — has flashes of Aaron Sorkin’s snappy dialogue. It’s certainly more accessible and human than Adam McKay’s Wall Street drama, focusing on the disconnect between the intelligent but aimless world of geek-backed start-ups in the late 90s with the vicious uncautious nature of the business world.
He has more sympathy for the tech engineers pushed to the brink by corporate bigwigs who only see profit and not basic decency (still a problem in the tech world 20 years later). But it’s smart of the movie to show how no one was truly prepared for the tech boom of the new millennium and the endless desire of the public for the latest grown-up toy. Pacing is also a major factor in the BlackBerry story, with Johnson moving the movie at a brisk pace while also sacrificing a detailed look into how the BlackBerry company, Research in Motion, got itself out of a strip mall, or how it applied specific improvements to the phone over its early days.
Still, this structural decision leaves more time for the character drama of Jim becoming more maniacal and Mike growing more distant from the grounding force of his friends. It’s a predictable story with an ending that’s a touch too tidy, but BlackBerry has enough energy in its filmmaking and such concise storytelling that it gets by in spades.
Most of that energy comes from its performances, especially Howerton. Yes, there are flashes of his iconic Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but Howerton actually finds new dimensions to the rage and sociopathy of his calling card in Jim Balsillie. Howerton enters every scene with a swagger that’s both imposing and filled with insecurity, knowing that even the tiniest bother could send him into a tornado of rage.
When that anger comes out, it’s not like “the gust of a thousand winds” but more of a vicious denial of anyone not meeting his standards of excellence. He can’t fathom why everyone else isn’t as motivated or intelligent as he is, like a Canadian yuppie bordering on becoming The Riddler. While Howerton could’ve been Star Lord at one point or could spend another decade playing Philly’s favorite skin collector, he opens a whole new door for himself with this performance.
Speaking of career-making moves, Baruchel may have found a new promising phase of his career. Much like other awkward movie dorks of the early 20teens like Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg, Baruchel has been pigeonholed into playing the same squeaky-voiced adorkable buddy. Like Howerton, Baruchel has taken his routine casting and turned it into something layered as Mike Lazaridis.
At face value, Mike is just an introverted nerd whose tech genius got taken for a ride by a greedy shark. Baruchel knows to add glimmers of the same vanity Howerton’s performance has, whether he talks about what makes the BlackBerry important or just fixes an office intercom. That vanity grows throughout the movie, but Baruchel doesn’t snuff out Mike’s innocence entirely. He’s still the heart of the movie. It takes the cliché adorkability and makes it into something more mature and three-dimensional. And only someone with a persona like Baruchel’s could have pulled it off.
The bottom line.
Much like Ben Affleck’s Air earlier this year, the story of BlackBerry can seem very routine at first glance and only worthy of a detailed documentary your parents might watch on a bored weeknight. To make it truly cinematic, you need an energetic filmmaker who makes the events play out like the whole world is about to explode. BlackBerry may not have the Hollywood star power or brand familiarity of Air, but Johnson actually laps Affleck (and other recent true story dramas) with engrossing characterization and tight pacing.
It’s the perfect movie for people who love the shocking truth of documentaries when it’s jacked on the steroids of Hollywood high drama. Sure, a lecture on historically significant events is informative, but it’d be more memorable if the professor giving it was playing to the geeks in the back row.
BlackBerry is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of IFC Films.
BLACKBERRY - 8/10