“BlackBerry” doesn’t mark the first time a feature film has dealt with the actual business world, although it’s hard to imagine a more inventive use of director Matt Johnson’s reality-blurring mockumentary approach to tell a strong story about the rise and fall of a tiny computer that made big money for greedy men and in a larger perspective, a poignant tale about the end of innocence for both entrepreneurship and geek culture.
In 1996, nerdy tech wizard Mike Laziridis (Jay Baruchel), a studious young man with a permanent stoop and prematurely gray hair, and his friend and business partner Doug Fregin (Johnson, who co-wrote the script with Matthew Miller), who wears a headband, T-shirt and shorts and quotes lines of dialogue from movies, hatch an idea to combine email, internet and pager into a single small hand-held device they’ve named PocketLink.
Life is good for Mike and Doug and their merry band of geeks, who are rewarded for their efforts with Movie Night — “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a particular favorite — until the arrival of no-nonsense corporate executive Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, giving a performance of towering menace). A rabid hockey fan, he negotiates his way into the company using browbeating, threats, humiliation, intimidation and, ultimately, criminal activity.
Balsillie takes charge and the device, now called BlackBerry (we’re never told where the name came from) takes off. Incredibly popular, it makes millions in profits for Balsillie and drives a wedge into the friendship of Mike and Doug, who never wanted their little company to go Big Corporate. The end comes in a scandal over stock manipulation and advances in communications technology when the keyboard-less Apple iPhone renders the BlackBerry obsolete.
Johnson places Doug in the background and hands most of the movie over to Baruchel, a wise move as Mike is the more interesting character. Mike is a loner and a control freak. He mistrusts all products made in China — “The mark of the Beast” — he tells Doug, and he’s a perfectionist when he builds new products by hand. Howerton’s Balsillie is a fireball of hostility and profanity whose over-the-top behavior always rings true and stays credible.
The supporting cast is filled with familiar personalities. Cary Elwes and Saul Rubinek turn up as tech company head honchos, and Michael Ironside, bulky and bearded, is Balsillie’s company enforcer. Other seasoned pros like Martin Donovan have small roles but make a great impact. Steve Jobs makes what could be called a walk-on when he appears on screen introducing the iPhone, a triumph for Apple but a dose of future shock for Mike and Doug.
In real life, Johnson and Miller are alumni of York University in Toronto, where they still teach screenwriting. They were inspired to write the script for “Blackberry” when they acquired the rights to the book “Losing the Signal.” Arriving 36 years after “Wall Street,” “BlackBerry” demonstrates there’s still room in the Greed-Is-Good format to craft a fresh movie that reveals its best punchline before the final credits.
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