Movie Review: Remembering the Cellular Addiction’s Gateway Drug — “Blackberry”

My first experience of the phenomenon instantly-labeled “Crackberry” was near its Canadian source, at the Toronto Film Festival shortly after the turn of the Millenium. You couldn’t watch a movie there without scanning a sea of little green screens all but rendering the big screen irrelevent.

Kind of felt like the End of Civilization as We Know It.

“Blackberry” is a crisp, crackling account — lightly-fictionalized — of that Canadian phenomenon that changed the world just as surely as Scots-born Canadian Alexander Graham Bell had changed it over a century before.

Actor, director and Canadian joker Matt Johnson, who directed, co-wrote and starred in a comedy about NASA faking the Apollo 11 moon landing (“Operation Avalanche”) turns out to be just the guy to chart the rise and fall of a revolutionary cell phone company — Research in Motion — and its addictive, world-dominating and then utterly-irrelevent most famous product, the Blackberry cell phone, the first to allow the Internet to fit into your pocket.

I used the word “guy” as a qualifier there for a reason, because this is prettty much a “guys” movie, capturing a nerdy male tech world at its most sexist, something the film has to jokingly acknowledge even if that isn’t exactly addressed. You can read the vanity, ego, machismo and nationalist pride that set the stage for Research in Motion’s rise and rapid fall as a study in male myopia, a monoculture that caught mononucleosis and pretty much died off because of it, it if you want to. Fair is fair.

Johnson fills the screen with very good character actors, with his disheveled self heading a cadre of accomplished Canadians –– Jay Baruchel and Saul Rubinek to horror legend Michael Ironside, scary as ever, even in a suit and a “suits” job — Chief Operating Officer.

But “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” veteran Glenn Howerton, playing the Big Business Bully who comes in, screams and breaks phones of every description as he all but takes over a Nerd Utopia — video-gaming slackers who had company Movie Nights built around “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “They Live” showings — and lets them play in the big leagues.

Howertown blows through this picture like a Canadian Clipper, playing the bald, impatient, hockey-obsessed, overreaching, tantrum-tossing tyro Jim Balsillie, who makes himself “Co-CEO” alongside the more introverted engineering genius Mike Lazaridis (Baruchel) who co-founded the company with his fellow tech nerd (as envisioned here) and childhood pal Doug Fregin (Johnson).

“Blackberry” tells the story of the company, the phone and the guys who made it and broke it in three acts.

In 1996, the twelve year-old firm was struggling and just-fired marketing maestro Balsillie reaches out, having dismissed Mike and Doug’s earnest but inept pitch to his last employer, offers to buy in, take control, and after bullying them, to bully the SOBs at bigger tech companies. Their competitors were slapping this modem maker with a dream of using pager/phone networks to put a computer in your pocket around.

Ballsy Balsillie was sure he could put a stop to that, even if he couldn’t wholly change this Waterloo, Ontario company’s culture.

In 2003, their phone is out and Balsillie cunningly oversells it (crashing the limited pre-“1G-5G” networks of the day) by making the Blackberry “a status symbol,” pushing his sales staff to use them in a very public way, in tennis clubs and tony restaurants and bars.

At the Toronto Film Festival?

And in act three — 2007 — comes the reckoning, the iPhone Apocalypse, where a market-dominating behemoth and the geniuses who got it there figure out all the ways to muck it all up.

Johnson, his cast and his co-writer, loosely adapting a book about the rise and fall of Research in Motion, also tell the story through three distinct character arcs. One player in the saga starts out a villain, becomes a hero, and winds up back at villain. Another is an idealistic hero who turns towards the dark side. A third is just as idealistic, but childish, and maybe needs to grow up.

The wonderful Saul Rubinek plays an Atlantic Bell tech honcho who, with the perfect jaw-dropped-in-awe look, lets us see what he sees and hears when Mike reveals an elegant solution he’s found to a problem that Ma Bell had spent a fortune failing to solve.

“Scanners” and “Starship Troopers” veteran Ironside plays a whip-cracking tyrant with another tech company whom Jim, recognizing a fellow shouter, head-hunts to whip their brilliant, loyal “family” workforce into global marketplace fighting trim.

Every tale of this sort, be it one that follows the founding of Facebook, early Apple or even the misguided automotive genius for whom “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” is named, needs a heavy. Here, he’s played to the unctuous hilt by Cary Elwes, who takes the best role he’s had in years — as the smarmy, smiling bully who ran rival US Robotics’ Palm Pilot — and makes him the clueless clown who can’t foretell the future, or swallow up the Blackberry.

Johnson, playing the designated goofball (headband, unruly hair), co-writing the amusing script, which sees Doug groping for ways to pitch their Big Idea about using the “network” that’s already out there — “It’s like The Force! Didya see ‘Star Wars?'” — keeps the tone light, even as he sets us up for a story that’s nothing less than momentous.

A nice touch — using a clip of sci-fi writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) predicting the wireless revolution way back in the ’60s by saying, “Men will no longer commute, they will communicate!” — to open the film.

Baruchel, playing a Big Thinker whose hair went white in his 20s, makes a great, sober counter-balance to shrieking, impulsive Doug, who pleads for them to blow off this brute (Howerton’s Balsillie) who storms in to take over.

“The guy’s a shark!”

Parroting Balsillie’s observation of how clients and vendors they’re dealing with are looting their company without the courtesy of wearing an eyepatch or a pegleg, Mike gets it.

“You know who’s afraid of sharks? Pirates!”

Scene after scene has just such confrontations, with flinty and just-right exchanges setting the direction of the company and the arc of the narrative.

Mike’s a perfectionist. Jim’s not just a short-tempered tyrant. He’s a bottom-line pragmatist.

“Are you familiar with the saying, ‘Perfection is the enemy of ‘good enough?‘”

“Well, ‘good enough’ is the enemy of humanity!”

From beginning to middle to the end, Johnson serves up the conflicts, the characters, the stakes and the human-failings inevitability of it all with broad strokes and punchy, cutting lines. And his players wear their archetypes with skill, allowing for the occasional grand flourish.

Yes, this is a lightly-fictionalized account of the birth of one of the seminal technologies of our time, fuzzied up just enough to keep the lawyers at bay. But if it’s not how it literally went down, it certainly makes for a colorful yarn to pass around the campfire on those cold nights in the Great White North.

Rating: R, profanity and lots of it

Cast: Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Martin Donovan, Cary Elwes, Saul Rubinek and Michael Ironside.

Credits: Directed by Matt Johnson, scripted by Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller, based on the book by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:58


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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