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‘BlackBerry’ Adequately Roasts Jim Balsillie

By Lindsay Traves | Film | May 12, 2023 |

By Lindsay Traves | Film | May 12, 2023 |


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In a year of movies like Tetris and Air, you might think the USA is the hub for capitalists gone wild, but your apologetic neighbors to the North are no strangers to the perils of chasing world domination. Before the iPhone brought touch screens to the world, there was the BlackBerry, Research in Motion’s, smartphone that connected a QWERTY keyboard-handled device to the internet and changed the world. Then it completely imploded. And who better to tell the story of Canada’s earth-changing techno-giant than the creator of the absurdist mockumentary comedy series, Nirvana the Band the Show?

BlackBerry was directed and co-written by Matt Johnson, a guy most associated with the mockumentary (and found footage features), which came through in his The Office style single camera cringe comedy approach. Taking some creative liberties, Johnson worked from the book Losing the Signal to adapt the tale of the technology giant into a dry dramedy for the screen. Glenn Howerton leads as Canadian boogeyman, Jim Balsillie, and Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis. The two forge a “Woz and Jobs” style relationship when the controversial Balsillie is fired from his job and decides to hitch himself to the clueless technology company sitting on a billion-dollar idea. With his new co-CEO, the meek Lazaridis is thrust into massive success with Balsillie opening doors and Lazaridis walking through them. But Balsillie’s hubris is uncontrolled and contagious, so just as quickly as RIM and the BlackBerry changed the world, it smacked into a wall and crumbled into a million pieces.

The electrifying and slightly vulgar BlackBerry is a fascinating study in a time of technology mega-giant supremacy. It’s interesting to reflect on how Silicon Valley lands now that we’re in an “Elon owns Twitter” world, and it’s all the more intriguing to see that narrative model applied to a late-’90s true story. BlackBerry is a well-timed tale of changing the world and failing miserably. Johnson’s version of the events highlights the element of compromising values in the face of ego to catalogue Lazaridis’s fall from grace and how he learned lessons from the wrong counterpart.

Johnson’s film shows immense confidence in its subject matter, knowing how the handheld device is able to lionize itself. That gives him the freedom to take the piss out of the events, and he avoids leaning on period-piece and location gags, instead using them as decoration to highlight the continuing relevance of the events. His sizzling wit is on display in how he places himself into the fray as Doug, who spends most of the movie reacting to the wild things happening around him.

Howerton is an inspired choice for Balsillie, bringing his deranged-Dennis-Reynolds line deliveries to a character so set on shouting his way into what he wants. He’s a master of making unchecked rage hilarious, which is perfectly snug in this on-the-fence of absurdist take on the drama that’s even a bit reminiscent of Glengarry Glen Ross. He’s a perfect foil to Baruchel’s dynamic performance as the meek man who takes on the qualities of those around him, and this further highlights how undeterred and unchanged Balsillie is in the face of his own successes and adversities. At times, the camera and editing can’t keep up with Howerton, lingering too long on his finished speech calling attention to the comedy giant being placed among his smaller peers.

If Tetris is about American audacity, BlackBerry is about Canadian tenacity. It’s impossible to ignore BlackBerry’s Canadianity. The location card insists on labeling it “Waterloo, Ontario,” the location of the offices is a plot point and never a joke, and Baruchel calmly delivers, “I’m in charge and I say sorry.” Despite it being a show of the company that put us on the map and then shredded our job market, I found myself compelled to yell “CA NA DA CA NA DA” at this riotous love letter to the maple-scented nation. The film is shot in Ontario and never shies away from being in the province and not in the capital. It gently highlights how RIM forced tech giants to pay attention to the other other Ontario city. Bringing in the NHL team side-story, and casting Mark Critch as Gary Bettman felt like a North-of-the-Border in-joke that showcased a smorgasbord of boo-worthy icons for Canadians.

BlackBerry is a frenzied and wildly entertaining example of how to apply a unique style to a true story. Letting comedic talents like Howerton shine in a crackling single-camera setup is an innovative way to tell a story that anyone who’s had a newspaper subscription has already read. Johnson has made Canada’s answer to the biopic, splashing it in hockey lore, Ontario accents, and a refusal to feel less than American corporate hubs. His version of the story is as hilarious as it is defeating and comes together as an expertly crafted roast of one of Canada’s most notorious icons whom I’m pretty sure pronounces his name “ball-silly.” Though dated, the tale of BlackBerry is a fresh take on the biopic that turns everyone’s keyboard nostalgia into a hilarious saga of dumb geniuses.