The story of the rise and fall of the world's first smartphone is told in BlackBerry. Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson) are business partners in the upstart Waterloo, Ontario, technology company Research In Motion. The two make a pitch to Harvard-educated businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) of Sutherland-Schultz Ltd for their new idea for a phone that can access the internet. While Jim initially turns the two down, when he is subsequently let go from S-S, he returns to them with the offer that he can help sell the phone on the condition that he be made RIM's co-CEO. The BlackBerry ends up being a huge success. However, Jim's shady business practices and new competition from the Apple iPhone threaten to bring this smartphone company crashing down.
BlackBerry is a semi-fictionalized biography of the rise and fall of the BlackBerry smartphone co-written, directed and co-starring Matt Johnson (The Dirties, Operation Avalanche, Nirvanna the Band The Show), based on the 2016 book “Losing The Signal: The Spectacular Rise And Fall Of The Blackberry” by Jacquie McNish. The film departs from the faux documentaries Johnson is typically known for. Instead, it is a proper narrative film starring Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as the BlackBerry co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, respectively. The socially awkward Mike focuses primarily on the technology end of BlackBerry. In contrast, Jim ends up being the face of the company, making pitches to John Woodman (Saul Rubinek), warding off a potential takeover by Palm CEO Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes), and hiring new staff such as former Google engineer Paul Stannos (Rich Sommer) and new COO Charles Purdy (Michael Ironside). However, Jim offers his new hires backdated stock options, resulting in an eventual investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
My Thoughts on BlackBerry
It has been a decade since Matt Johnson debuted his darkly comic school-shooting-themed debut, The Dirties, at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival. Since then, Johnson has developed a cult following for his subsequence feature Operation Avalance in 2016 and his web series turned Vice television series Nirvanna the Band (2017-19). In Matt Johnson's words, BlackBerry is his “sell-out movie,” casting established actors in the major roles. At the same time, Johnson, who took the lead in his previous films, relegates himself to the comic-relief supporting role of Research In Motion co-founder Douglas Fregin, who gets further relegated to the background of the company as the BlackBerry takes off.
Featuring a plot structure similar to Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs, each act of BlackBerry takes place in a different era of the company's history. The film begins in 1996, as Research in Motion is an upstart running out of a cramped office. The film then moves forward to 2003 as the BlackBerry takes off seriously and becomes the world's number one phone. Finally, the third act takes place in 2007 as BlackBerry begins its decline at the same time Steve Jobs announces the Apple iPhone.
While I'm not going to focus too much on BlackBerry‘s factual accuracy, the film opens with a disclaimer stating that it's a fictionalized telling of the story, the film stands alongside films such as The Social Network when it comes to technology-focused biopics. A particular standout in the film is the awards-worthy performance by Glenn Howerton, who adds the right mix of charisma and sliminess to his performance as Jim Balsillie. I would almost call him the villain of BlackBerry if it weren't for the fact that Cary Elwes' Carl Yankowski is probably the film's biggest jerk in the few scenes he appears in.
The true tragic figure of BlackBerry is Jay Baruchel's Mike Lazaridis, whose prematurely greying hair gets whiter as Mike forgets where he came from and slowly sells his soul for BlackBerry's success. This is illustrated through Mike's diminishing friendship with Douglas Fregin, who, while arguably the more immature of the two, never ends up relinquishing his integrity and the little things that make his time at the company special, such as driving up to movie night with M.C. Hammer's “This is What We Do” from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie soundtrack blazing in his car, one of many notable needle drops throughout the film.
It is ultimately safe to say that BlackBerry marks the beginning of a new stage of the career of Matt Johnson. In only a decade, he has gone from making a dark comedy about two friends planning a school shooting to a biography about the rise and fall of the world's first smartphone. As his next project is reportedly a film adaptation of Nirvanna the Band, it will be interesting to see what direction Matt Johnson's career goes from here.