Gemma Creagh holds the line for Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry.
When it comes to creating the next generation of mobile phones, talk is anything but cheap for BlackBerry founders Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson). This dark comedy looks at the tumultuous tech industry, casting an eye on the rapid growth and disastrous collapse of the company behind the world’s first popular smartphone.
BlackBerry‘s budget had a mere fraction of the cost of similar-era period films, such as the Beanie Bubble or The Wolf of Wall Street. However the production design, talent and scale doesn’t give the game away. This film is skillfully executed on every level by Matt Johnson from the script he co-wrote with producer Matthew Miller that was, in turn, based on the book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by Jacquie McNish Sean Silcoff. And if two hats weren’t enough on this project, Johnson embodies the emotional core of the company, Doug, with an excruciatingly lovable charm.
What stands out about this mid-budget biopic is the unusual blend of cutting humour teamed with subtly affectionate characterizations. This is an unexpected cocktail that leads to an engaging and riveting watch. Essentially we are set up to root for the Betamax of the phone world. The portrayal of Lazaridis and Balsillie as cold and cutthroat, is balanced against their underdog status and unadulterated moxy. Johnson’s top casting choices and bold creative vision brings authenticity to a nostalgia-seeped fictionalisation, from a terrified scientist working with a woman for the first time to the slick sales team folding under pressure. A small side step from his role as affable psychopath Dennis on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Glenn Howerton fully commits to the role of corporate shark Balsillie by shaving his head and delivering some seriously glorious scowls. While Jay Baruchel gives a surprisingly nuanced perspective on the deeply introverted and technical genius of Lazaridis.
Because of the succinct nature of the film, it would be interesting to compare pacing with the extended, TV version, which will air as a three-part miniseries on Canadian TV this November. In the feature, Johnson takes us on a rapidfire tour of the tech world, looking at the company’s arc from the perspective of board rooms, strategy orgs, sales meetings, manufacturing as well as design teams and how these scale from a small lab of nerds to a multibillion dollar company – also full of nerds. Personally, I would happily wallow in this universe for a few seasons or more.
BlackBerry is an impressive feat that marks Johnson’s leap from indie darling/TV Director to someone to genuinely watch out for.
BlackBerry is in cinemas from 6th October 2023.