If someone were asked which device was the first to popularize thumb typing, a likely response might be, “Apple’s iPhone with its touchscreen keyboard.” But that dubious honor belongs to the Blackberry, the first widely embraced cellphone with a built-in keyboard that supported fast texting and mobile email access. An uproarious new film out of Waterloo, Ontario, with the straightforward title of Blackberry, dramatizes the breathtaking rise and fall of the company behind the innovative device.
Blackberry’s narrative echoes parts of David Fincher’s 2010 film, The Social Network; two buddies develop a product, hire an aggressive business partner to help propel it to market dominance, and obtain massive wealth at the expense of legal problems and destroyed friendships. But the similarities end there. Blackberry’s visual aesthetic runs counter to the stylized look of its higher-budgeted predecessor by using naturalistic lighting and handheld camerawork to provide an immersive fly-on-the-wall viewing experience. Snappy editing, sharp dialog, and a judicious rock soundtrack create an exciting portrait of an insanely successful high-tech startup – until, of course, fortunes turn and tensions build following the release of the iPhone, forcing our protagonists to make a desperate attempt to stave off obsolescence.
In a textbook example of screenwriting economy, Blackberry fleshes out the three principal characters within the very first scene. It’s 1996, and taciturn Mike Lazaridis and his loquacious best friend Doug Fregin – co-founders of a small tech company known as Research in Motion – are preparing to pitch their email-capable phone to a business executive named Jim Balsillie. As they’re waiting in Jim’s office, Mike’s intelligence, obsessiveness, and complete disdain for Chinese electronics are instantly established when he repairs a hissing intercom speaker with nothing more than a paperclip. When the time comes for the pitch, Jim only half listens. Unbeknownst to Mike and Doug, the cutthroat businessman is preoccupied with his own plan to usurp a fellow employee as part of his next career move. Sensing the coming rejection, Doug tries to take control of the presentation, but to no avail; Jim bluntly rejects their business proposition. But when he finds himself suddenly unemployed after his power play backfires, he approaches the duo and offers a desperately needed line of cash in exchange for the title of co-CEO. Much to the chagrin of Doug, who correctly perceives Jim as a shark, Mike accepts the deal, and Research in Motion is off and running.
The director of Blackberry, Matt Johnson, who also co-wrote the screenplay, cast himself in the role of Doug, a character so resembling a Seth Rogen creation, litigation might be in the offing. Fellow Canuck Jay Baruchel portrays the prematurely gray and wiry perfectionist Mike. However, Glenn Howerton, best known as the co-creator and star of the long running sitcom, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, steals the show as Jim with an aggressive approach that inspires both respect and fear. Supporting the relatively young cast are two Canadian veterans, Saul Rubinek and cult-film favorite Michael Ironside.
Blackberry is at turns funny, exhilarating, suspenseful, and deserves kudos for its portrayal of geek culture without parody or condescension, despite it being shown as dominated by males of two distinct body types – underweight and overweight – who love playing computer games and wearing T-shirts advertising their favorite horror movies.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski
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