'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' star Glenn Howerton is phenomenal in this tragedy-meets-farce version of the first must-have smartphone's rise and fall.
August 16, 2023
There's rarely a still moment in BlackBerry. Someone is almost always moving, usually in a hurry and while trying to make their dreams come true everywhere and anywhere. Those folks: Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel, FUBAR) and Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson, Anne at 13,000 Ft), who created the game-changing smartphone that shares this movie's name; also Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), the executive they pitch to, get knocked back by, then hire as co-CEO. That near non-stop go-go-go look and feel — cinematography that's constantly roving and zooming to match, too — isn't just a stylistic, screenwriting or performance choice. It's a case of art imitating the impact that the BlackBerry handsets and their tiny QWERTY keyboards had on late-90s and early-00s life. Before the iPhone and its fellow touchscreen competitors took over, it was the key device for anyone with a work mobile. The big selling point? Letting people do their jobs — well, receive and send emails — on the move, and everywhere and anywhere.
Should you blame Research in Motion, the Canadian technology company that Lazaridis and Fregin founded, for shattering work-life balance? Dubbed "crackberries", their phones played a significant part in extending the office's reach. Is anyone being inundated with after-hours emails on a BlackBerry today? Unless they have an old handset in their button-pressing hands, it isn't likely — and BlackBerry the film explains why. Spinning on-screen product origin stories is one of 2023's favourites trend, as Tetris, Air and Flamin' Hot have demonstrated; however, history already dictates that the latest addition to that group doesn't have a happy ending. Instead, this immersive and gripping picture tells of two friends with big plans who achieved everything they ever wanted, but at a cost that saw the BlackBerry become everything, then nothing. Like its fellow object-to-screen flicks, it follows a big leap that went soaring; this one just crashed spectacularly afterwards.
"A pager, a cell phone and an e-mail machine all in one": that's how Mike and Doug explain the PocketLink, the idea that'll turn into the BlackBerry, when they're trying to drum up investors. It's a winning concept, including in 1996 when the film kicks off, but these two pals know computers, coding and tech better than getting their creation out into the world. Balsillie, after rejecting them in a job he's feeling undervalued in, approaches the pair with an offer to assist. Give him a title, authority and a stake in the company, and he'll put in his own cash, become their business saviour and get their phone out into the world. And he does. BlackBerry devices were everywhere in the 2000s. Then Steve Jobs launched the handset that's become ubiquitous since, RIM responded, and the aftermath is well-known in everyone's pockets.
There's a cautionary-tale air to this quickly compelling third feature from Johnson, who doesn't just slip into Doug's shoes while rocking an ever-present red headband — he directs and writes, as he did with The Dirties and Operation Avalanche, co-scripting here with Matthew Miller (Nirvanna the Band the Show, another Johnson-starring and -helmed project). BlackBerry isn't content to merely chart an upswing and downfall, plus a trouncing by a corporate adversary, digging into the perils of at-any-cost perspectives in every frame. Always as glaringly evident as a BlackBerry's buttons: if RIM hadn't made short-sighted choices and shady deals, cut corners, and played everything fast and loose while splashing around cash, the film mightn't wrap up as it does irrespective of the iPhone's success. Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs inspired dramas (see: The Social Network, Jobs and Steve Jobs), but Lazaridis, Fregin and Balsillie have sparked a tragedy meets farce.
Stepping through IRL events that concluded badly, famously so, doesn't stop Johnson from staying playful as a filmmaker. Indeed, BlackBerry is firmly a satire. Non-fiction book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff provides the movie's starting-off point, the overall rise-and-fall arc sticks to the facts, and the era-appropriate aesthetic and pop-culture references — including The Strokes, Moby and The White Stripes needle drops; The Breakfast Club quotes; and Point Break posters — are spot on, but this flick would also go well with The Office or Office Space. The core character dynamic demands a sense of humour, pairing a smart but socially awkward couple of mates with big hopes with a ruthless and shark-like salesman. Reality demands it, too, with the film taking a "what else can you do but laugh?" approach to capitalism in action at its worst.
That restless, shaky, zipping-around cinematography by Jared Raab (also The Dirties, Operation Avalanche and Nirvanna the Band the Show, plus We're All Gonna Die (Even Jay Baruchel)) captures plenty that's ridiculous and yet also never surprising. BlackBerry is an eager parody — it purposefully isn't 100-percent accurate in every single detail, and it's as offbeat in vibe as Johnson's past work — but the peppily paced picture remains affectionate about an undersung chapter of Canadian history. So, it chuckles, boggles and chronicles. It perfects the gist of RIM's journey to great heights and back to earth again so savvily that everything feels authentic (emotionally at least) and winking at once. BlackBerry makes cheeky jokes about the device's name, shows LANs and movie nights that couldn't be further away from the corporate normality, giggles when eye-watering figures are thrown at other company's employees and lets Howerton lean into the cut-throat exec type with visible relish — and always keeps clicking as a portrait of faking it till you make it, chasing a quick win over a long-term plan, tech-industry greed and hubris, and selling out over going with your gut.
The cast, especially Howerton, buzz on the film's wavelength on the strongest setting possible. While he'll forever be Dennis Reynolds, as he has on the small screen across 16 seasons so far since 2005, he's also a powerhouse as the relentlessly calculating, hockey-loving, take-no-prisoners figure who knows that he's a predator — and he's equally and astutely hilarious. Sporting a shock of greying hair even while playing a thirtysomething, Baruchel is similarly excellent, and subtler. BlackBerry isn't chortling at Balsillie, or at Lazaridis and Fregin, though. Rather, it's amused by the fact that each does exactly what they were always bound to based on their personalities, taking RIM's tale down the only path they probably could with this trio thrust together at the helm. Blackberry phones were once a character-defining status symbol; this can't-look-away movie is three fascinating character studies inside a comedic corporate horror show.
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