Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune
The phrase “comparisons are odious” has been around since the 15th century, but what the hell: “BlackBerry” is far, far better than so, so many of the recent screen chronicles of product launches, and the visionary nerds behind them, starting with “Steve Jobs” (2015) and continuing all the way through the recent “Air.”
I enjoyed “Air” while also wondering if we were getting a little too much hot air in the telling. Consider “BlackBerry” a sharp-witted, fleet-footed complement bordering on a corrective to that movie.
It’s Canadian to the bone, taking place mostly in Waterloo, Ontario, where the aspiring software company Research in Motion became a global powerhouse with its clicky lil’ wonder, the BlackBerry, before collapsing in on itself due to fishy, illegal stock manipulation and the emergence of Apple’s iPhone, the thing that did not and does not click in the least, unless you activate the old-timey keyboard sound effect. (Some of us totally get that impulse; I sort of miss the BlackBerry, since tech-wise I’m all thumbs to begin with.)
Co-written, co-starring and directed by Matt Johnson, “BlackBerry” doesn’t sermonize or push the comedy or falsify the dramatic dynamics of wildly contrasting personalities. It’s a small but quite beautiful achievement, which you could also say about the smartphone that could, and did. For a while.
“The person who puts a computer inside a phone will change the world,” says RIM tech wizard Mike Lazaridis, crediting his high school shop class instructor with the quote. His friend and co-worker at RIM, Doug Fregin (a bro’s bro and a nerd’s nerd, played by director Johnson), later expresses the film’s key concept, the one that leads to the BlackBerry itself: “Picture a pager, a cellphone and an email machine, all in one thing.”
Beginning in 1996, the film bases its narrative on the nonfiction account “Losing the Signal.” The RIM office, a merry, dumpy strip-mall beehive, has some money behind it. Quite a bit, in fact; a $1.6 million bank loan has led to the invention and production of modems shipped off by the dozens to RIM’s first big client, U.S. Robotics. Only they haven’t gotten paid yet. Mike is panicking; Doug is too busy having a ball with the guys on movie night (”Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a fave) to care about the future.
Then they meet their destiny, as well as their Waterloo: the sharklike entrepreneur Jim Balsillie,who quickly embeds himself into RIM’s future as co-CEO and taskmaster, not to mention screamer. Soon enough, massive success and greater financial lust come calling. Soon after that, the high-flying BlackBerry honcho begins cutting ethical and legal corners, promising every new flashy hire millions in backdated stock options. Also, he gets very interested in hockey teams and hockey stadiums. Meantime, the key Mike/Doug friendship, as dramatized in the script by Johnson and Matthew Miller, frays, strand by strand.
In that aspect “BlackBerry” recalls the betrayal of trust between old pals and startup founders depicted in “The Social Network,” which remains the gold standard in the realm of freely fictionalized tech age cautionary tales. This one’s not after the same sort of high-flown, dark-toned ruminations, at least in the same storytelling fashion. The visual approach is nervous docudrama, effectively deployed. Throughout, even with the “fall” part of this rise-and-fall yarn of capitalistic risk, reward and disaster, “BlackBerry” has its own, crafty way of finding the humor along with the inevitable path toward financial disaster sprung from greed.
The cast boasts some serious deadpan ringers, notably Baruchel, who never fails to amuse or to surprise with his dramatic precision when called for. (His only deadpan rival here: SungWon Cho as a secondary RIM acquisition who makes the most of every line.) The spark plug, though, dominates throughout. Glenn Howerton plays Balsillie as a raging, semi-maniacal force of economic nature, and it’s a terrific performance. We’ve seen this guy before in a lot of movies, but rarely better. He’s basically a one-man production of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which is name-checked, for the record, in the script. And though there are many others, Howerton is reason enough to see “BlackBerry.”
3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for language throughout)
Running time: 1:59
How to watch: In theaters Friday
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