movie review

BlackBerry Is More Office Space Than Social Network

Photo: IFC Films

When we first glimpse Glenn Howerton’s Jim Balsillie in BlackBerry, we see only the top half of his face, caught in a rearview mirror. So he’s all eyebrows and forehead, a near-comical vision of drive and animalistic ambition, as he pulls into a parking spot and looks around suspiciously, noting a limo full of corporate types filing out behind him. It’s a streamlined and accurate first impression. Described as a “shark,” the ruthless Balsillie turns out to be just what the clumsy, introverted nerds who founded Research in Motion (RIM), the tiny company that in the late 1990s and early 2000s would transform the cell-phone industry, need to make their harebrained schemes reality.

Directed by Matt Johnson, BlackBerry basically presents the story of RIM and the rise of the smartphone as a sitcom pitch: What happens when two affable, not-ready-for-prime-time dorks from Waterloo, Canada — brilliant engineer Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his can-do cheerleader pal Doug Fregin (Johnson) — are joined by a crisply suited, Harvard-educated, phone-smashing apex predator. Balsillie is not a tech guy, and it’s only by chance that he realizes the potential of Lazaridis and Fregin’s idea of a cell phone that can also send and receive emails. But he knows how to sell, and he knows how to go for the kill when he’s got something he knows people want. It’s a solid comic setup. One of the great pleasures of BlackBerry is watching Balsillie’s befuddled, running disgust at Lazaridis and Fregin’s hapless ways, at the chaotic ineptitude of their finances, their utter lack of business sense, their go-along-to-get-along management style. I would happily watch several seasons of these three going at it.

But there’s also a strain of fear running through Howerton’s portrayal of Balsillie that brings dramatic urgency to the film. He joins RIM after getting fired from his previous job (apparently for being too much of a go-getter), and in all his actions we sense a simmering terror at what will happen if this new endeavor fails. Even after the movie zooms forward to the 2000s, when BlackBerry devices were ubiquitous and RIM was on top of the world, Balsillie is in corporate panic mode, frantically trying to sell more units and innovate rapidly — or rather, force others to innovate rapidly — to avoid being bought out by the people who make PalmPilots. (Remember PalmPilots?) In other words, success begets more fear. There’s probably a disturbing lesson in there somewhere.

It’s the comic energy generated by the triumvirate of Howerton, Baruchel, and Johnson that really drives BlackBerry, but Johnson and his co-writer Matthew Miller also find lively ways to dramatize the technological concepts at play. Saul Rubinek has a memorable turn as an executive at a phone company who questions and even mocks RIM’s intentions at every turn, thus setting up scenes that helpfully explain just what exactly these engineers are up to. It’s a pretty transparent device; over the course of decades, Rubinek’s character doesn’t seem to age or even change chairs. But it works marvelously, because BlackBerry never takes itself too seriously.

In fact, the film’s charm is that it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. BlackBerry is more Office Space than Social Network. Even the main characters’ hairlines — Howerton’s fake-looking bald head (which he apparently shaved), Baruchel’s phony blond wig, and Johnson’s ever-present red bandana — look like discards from a sketch-comedy troupe. By keeping things so loose, Johnson is able to get away with his simplifications and any convenient rewritings of the facts. But the approach also gives the actors free rein to go big and broad, because that’s where the laughs usually are. The filmmakers in this case are content to entertain; if you learn some history along the way, that’s on you.

Correction: A previous version of this review incorrectly stated that Howerton is wearing a bald cap in the film; that is his actual (shaved) head.

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BlackBerry Is More Office Space Than Social Network