In the early 2000s, the tech world experienced a boom. Mobile phone users swelled to unprecedented levels with the introduction of the BlackBerry, a “cellular device with email, text and internet”. With its iconic click-click QWERTY keyboard and exclusive messenger service BBM, it was once dubbed ‘crackberry’ by its obsessed users, over whom it had a biting addictive quality. Its invention led to the phone-addicted present. The idea that Bill Gates’ (stock footage of him appears briefly) Microsoft Word could be used on a phone to write this review was just a figment of a dream of a concept back in 1996. The BlackBerry pioneers were dubbed absurdists and laughed out of the room. Those who dared critique the viability of the BlackBerry were all idiots, according to creator Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel).
We know now Lazaridis was somewhat right, given the man once regarded as a boy genius finally landed in the big leagues. The BlackBerry is responsible for how we text and type on our devices, as Lazaridis instructs John Woodman (Saul Rubinek) to use his thumbs. At its Icarus-esque heights around 2010, it had over 40% market share, even three years after Apple had released their iPhone. In 2022, BlackBerry Limited went bust, shutting down BlackBerry Messenger and finding themselves swallowed up by the tech zeitgeist to become the very thing they were scared of becoming: old news.
Waterloo, Ontario. 1996. Research in Motion, a little company that could, pitches their idea of the BlackBerry to Jim Balsillie (an incendiary Glenn Howerton). Lazaridis and Doug Fregin (director Matt Johnson, doing his utmost best to ruin his movie) bomb the pitch due to Lazaridis’ charisma-starved presentation. When things go ‘tits-up’ with Jim’s career immediately after, he decides to ‘shark’ them, supposedly sensing their potential from an awful pitch to which he didn’t actually listen. He manipulates the duo into making him co-CEO, providing the financial help to get them out of their $1.6m debt and the gravitas they need to compete in Silicon Valley, all the way from their little Canadian base
BLACKBERRY – an adaptation of the novel ‘Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry’ – is a brash but blasé chronicle of the tech giant’s rise and subsequent fall. The topic begs unfair comparison to biopic-like movies of its ilk: THE BIG SHORT and THE SOCIAL NETWORK being the most prominent comparative pieces. Johnson’s decision for handheld docudrama-style shooting and intermittent quick-edits of contemporary events emulates Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated Wall Street film. The narrative takes similar cliched strides on hubris as David Fincher’s Facebook film does; Balsillie raging out in a phone booth echoes Andrew Garfield’s iconic laptop smash.
“The topic begs unfair comparison to biopic-like movies of its ilk: THE BIG SHORT and THE SOCIAL NETWORK being the most prominent comparative pieces.”
These acclaimed films cast such a long shadow that when Johnson chooses the safe route with simple, linear storytelling and common biopic tropes – complete with the final “where they are now” postscript – his film feels like a cheap pastiche of those films. The final cut is difficult to appreciate, finding itself stale and irritating. Head irritator falls on Johnson himself, playing annoying, nerdy oaf Doug – kitted out in movie reference t-shirts, sporting an all-too-revealing vest, and sweatband. Doug’s priority lies in his simplistic dream of creating something with his friends, playing video games and spouting an occasional gurn at the camera like a discount Andy Samberg. The film drastically improves when he is removed from the action, and the sitcom-like comedy of the first half gives way for something a bit more thrilling – for which Howerton deserves credit (who shaved the top of his head for the role). Balsillie’s frenzied attempts to fend off a hostile takeover from PalmPilot CEO Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes in a brief cameo) manage to salvage some of the second half of the film.
Howerton embodies the same dark essence of Dennis, his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia character, but this time as a shady megalomaniac crook, chewing out his fellow cast members in what amounts to a cynically humorous exhibition of power. On its own merits, it’s an entertaining sequence but is a transformation from the first half’s in-joke mockery of itself into a serious, hubristic tale of corporate greed that is complete chalk and cheese.
For all Baruchel’s best efforts, his eccentric performance as Lazaridis is undermined by his very casting. Johnson’s choice to cast the baby-faced actor and don him in a grey wig in an attempt to present him as older is a baffling decision. His appearance in the latter stages, playing a 47-year-old Lazaridis with shoulder-length white hair, elicits stifled laughs at it rather than with it. Johnson may be showing that these tech nerds in power are just immature nerdy man-children attempting to reach further than their experience allows, but it instead appears as another joke flung into a narrative that now needs you to take it seriously.
“Johnson may be showing that these tech nerds in power are just immature nerdy man-children attempting to reach further than their experience allows, but it instead appears as another joke flung into a narrative that now needs you to take it seriously.”
As the film tracks through the years, showing the introduction of BBM and the pilfering of various engineers from the top companies that will eventually lead to the demise of the device, we get into 2007 and Steve Jobs’ iconic iPhone launch, bringing about another change to the media landscape right at the time of the release the BlackBerry Bold. That device’s release alongside the iPhone introduces a character motivation too late for it to matter emotionally. Lazaridis apparently loves the tactile click, one the public doesn’t get from the iPhone and is willing to throw away the moral objections he once had to overseas production to keep it. It’s a significant character point, not included until Johnson (who also wrote the screenplay) needs Lazaridis to feel that way.
Glenn Howerton almost rescues this uneven, chaotic film in a performance that will make you wonder where this has been his entire career, but this is the BlackBerry of techy biopics. It’s nothing new anymore.