Have you ever found yourself sitting at home watching a news report about one of the world's richest or smartest people and thought to yourself "I'm smarter than that person?"
You'll likely find yourself thinking that a lot throughout Matt Johnson's low-key but riveting moneybro thriller Blackberry, an almost docu-style glimpse inside the ascendance followed by the tragic fall of Canadian-based Research in Motion and the once beloved smartphone, I'll give you one guess as to its name, they brilliantly invented yet couldn't survive once the tech world around them figured out how to catch up.
It's hard to fathom that it was only in 1996 that this quirky group of Canadian techsters, led by Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson), came up with the weird idea to combine a cell phone and e-mail into one, let's be honest, awkwardly sized and shaped device that still took the tech world by storm. The guys drawn in Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), whose initial reluctance was quickly replaced by a shark in a business suit.
The film that follows is relentlessly engaging in an understated way. It feels more like Flash of Genius than The Social Network or The Wolf of Wall Street, though Johnson, who also directs and co-adapts the script from a book by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, somehow manages to make the tech lingo accessible and the dialogue-heavy narrative feel remarkably natural. As a film journalist old enough to remember the early days of the internet and certainly the introduction of smartphones, I found myself enthralled by just how realistically Blackberry portrays the brilliance that was the early smartphone era. To that point, Baruchel is brilliant here as Lazaridis in what is easily one of his best performances as a man whose intelligence and insight changed the world in mind-boggling ways. Blackberry makes sure we not only understand Lazaridis but we actually like him despite some pretty obvious flaws. It all makes the film's latter half, and especially the final third, all the more impactful.
Johnson's Fregin similarly captivates, a genius in his own right but never truly equipped for the high-powered corporate world.
Enter Howerton's frightening because he's true Balsillie, a ruthless leader with a laser sharp focus whose narcissism likely helped fuel Research in Motion's rise and also, perhaps, its eventual fall once a certain Cupertino-based upstart arrives on the scene led by Steve Jobs and figures out how to take Blackberry's idea and make it better, more user friendly, much more attractive, and ultimately the leader in the world that Research in Motion created.
Howerton's performance constantly dances close to the line of caricature yet never crosses it. It's a huge credit to Howerton that we can't help but like Balsillie even as his actions become increasingly questionable the more Research in Motion's decline picks up pace. There's not a lot of razzle-dazzle in Blackberry. Instead of style, Johnson sticks with substance in portraying the lives of these guys who were the smartest guys in the room until they weren't.
Lensing by Jared Raab impresses throughout, the film's docu-style structure somehow working perfectly alongside the film's narrative. Jay McCarrol's original music also manages to enhance the film's effectiveness and not so subtle yet effective tonal shifts.
Picked up by IFC Films, Blackberry is in theaters now.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic