Directed by Matt Johnson | Written by Johnson with Matthew Miller, from a book by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff | 119 min | ▲▲△△△
BlackBerry has the distinct disadvantage of being the third movie this season serving as a biography of a product. The first two were the entertaining 1980s international caper Tetris, about the efforts to distribute a Soviet-era video game, and the much-better-that-it-needed-to-be Air, which somehow succeeded in dramatizing Nike’s marketing deal with Michael Jordan’s family, a subject that on the surface seemed fraught with problematic issues and, frankly, boredom. Somehow, it worked.
In comparison, this is a Canadian production about a Canadian product, the one-time wildly popular and groundbreaking BlackBerry, aka CrackBerry, cellphone. For patriots that maybe balances out the unfortunate fact of its late release in this associated mini-genre. It deserves attention, no doubt.
The movie turns out to have a few laudable characteristics — the script is sharp, maybe the most important thing for a comedy — but it ultimately disappoints with production issues and poor decisions in the direction.
Let’s get the plot details out of the way: BlackBerry starts in the mid-1990s at Research In Motion, a Waterloo, Ontario based tech firm, and jumps forward seven years and then another four: the meteoric rise, the plateau, and the fall.
Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel playing against type, restrained and deeply introverted) and Doug Fregin (the director Johnson) are surrounded by adorable tech nerds who’d rather watch They Live than work. Their only business is a deal for modems that’s gone south. Compulsive asshole, Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), says he can turn their fortunes around if they give him a big chunk of the company. His solution is to focus on their one genius idea — a cellphone that works as a computer, too, the first real smartphone.
The rise is meteoric. What the film does well in the first act is capture the frantic, all-in energy of Canada’s version of Silicon Valley, the competitive spirit of the time, and the incredibly geeky vibe of those software engineers. Howerton gets a few laughs by basically being a full-on rage monster.
That’s the fun stuff. The problems, however, are so glaring they capsize the rest of it.
Johnson and his DP, Jared Raab, seem to think the best thing for a movie set in the mid-’90s to the mid 2000s is to make it look like a TV sitcom circa 2008. This being a workplace comedy, I guess its most direct visual antecedent is the American version of The Office — all meandering, hand-held camera, snap zooms and push-ins to capture mugging actors from across the room. It’s an indefensible aesthetic choice for a feature film. I’m so glad I didn’t see it on a big screen because I’m pretty sure it’s dizzying, irritating camerawork would’ve made me throw up.
The second major issue is the abysmal hair and make-up. The wig work here is so glaringly terrible, it makes the movie look like an overlong Saturday Night Live skit. Howerton’s male-pattern baldness is wildly artificial, and Baruchel’s hair looks like it belongs on a Lego mini-figure. All the characters change over the course of the film except for Johnson’s Doug, who looks like he takes style tips from 1970s John McEnroe. It makes the entire production impossible to take seriously, which would be fine if it stuck to its comedic set-up.
But when things start to go south for RIM, the film thinks it can pull our heartstrings by showing how stress and mismanagement destroyed the company — and its associated friendships — from within, but in order for that to work we needed to believe the character relationships were substantive from the jump. The movie never really makes those connections, so the drama of the third act just ends up feeling cheap and manipulative, especially under all that goofy hair. It’s like that long SNL skit ends up being about The Social Network.
The story of a business that triumphed and collapsed does hold up, for the most part. It helps to have solid support from Canadian acting legends Michael Ironside and Saul Rubinek, with some nice moments from Cary Elwes, Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer, and, in a perfectly poised cameo, Mark Critch as the NHL’s Gary Bettman. And Baruchel provides one evocative moment later on where he single-handedly tries to save the BlackBerry Storm. That’s the one manufactured in China.
But it’s just not enough to make this a good movie about a product instead of an also-ran.