BlackBerry is the (mostly) true story of the world’s first smartphone. At the turn of the millennium, the engineers at Research in Motion (RIM) had a dream. Led by Chief Executive Officer Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) they believe that the future is in data exchange. They have the aspiration of bundling email, phone, and texting all on a device that fits in one’s pocket. When RIM teams up with power business broker Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), the BlackBerry is born. The result is a meteoric rise in user adoption that elevates RIM’s profile and makes its employees millions. But with such rapid success, RIM learns that there’s always a price to pay for profitability.
What works in BlackBerry is the colorful insight into the early days of the technology boom. While perhaps over-accentuating signature characteristics, Baruchel and Howerton do a lovely job of squaring off. They share the goal of growing the business, but their tactics and approaches are constantly at odds. Lazaridis wants to push the envelope, but in a controlled way that doesn’t sacrifice quality. Balsillie wants revenue and is willing to play dirty to win. The two men at these extremes help balance the other. Watching how they navigate their relationship—where it often feels that they are speaking different languages—is fascinating against the backdrop of the digital age. Rounding this out is writer/director Matt Johnson who also plays the role of Doug Fregin: the comic relief and audience surrogate who consistently questions RIM’s ethics and strategy. There’s a balanced, honest approach to BlackBerry that keeps the film both engaging and educational.
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People who don’t attach to the use of caricatures to portray culture may not enjoy BlackBerry as much as others. To capture the attitudes and demeanor of the free-flowing RIM team, Johnson includes plenty of geek-focused elements. These include Fregin’s rotating wardrobe of nostalgia-based t-shirts, company movie nights that frequently catch Balsillie’s ire, and lots of workers exclaiming “that’s impossible!” only to overcome the challenge moments later. These stereotypes, while perhaps historically accurate, feel worn. Then there is Balsillie the character. Howerton does a fine job with the performance, but the material is incredibly one-dimensional. Nearly every one of his lines is an aggressive or disparaging remark, shouted to the rafters. After a while, audiences are bound to tire and sigh, “yes, he’s the villain; we get it.”
BlackBerry is great for anyone who ever wondered, “whatever happened to those things?” While it engages in some well-worn tropes about the ongoing battle between visionaries and the suits, there’s enough intrigue to keep the story moving.
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BlackBerry is available exclusively in theaters starting on Friday, May 12th.