‘BlackBerry,’ about the device’s rise and fall, presses all the right buttons

This is one of those whip-smart, character- and story-driven gems that grabs you from the start and never lets go.

SHARE ‘BlackBerry,’ about the device’s rise and fall, presses all the right buttons

Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel, left), co-founder of the company behind the Blackberry, takes on a ruthless partner, Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), in “BlackBerry.”

IFC Films

Three of the most entertaining movies of 2023 have told the origin stories of game-changing innovations from the latter part of the 20th century that left quite the stamp on the popular culture. First there was the breezy Apple TV+ Cold War romp “Tetris,” followed by Ben Affleck’s masterful “Air.” And now comes Matthew Johnson’s wickedly funny and kinetic “BlackBerry,” a classic inventor/underdog tale about that brief and shining era when a handheld device from Canada had millions of us working our thumbs to the bone as we obsessed over that tactile, clicking keyboard. The BlackBerry was so addictive it was dubbed “CrackBerry.” Remember? And then ... not so much.

The difference: Whereas “Tetris” tells us in the closing credits the game has sold more than a half billion copies and remains popular, and “Air” reaches its conclusion when we’re just at the beginning of Nike’s ascent to global domination, “BlackBerry” reminds us in the end title cards, “At its height, BlackBerry controlled 45% of the cell phone market. … Today, it’s 0%.” You probably know the reason why BlackBerry crashed and burned; if not, you can look it up on your iPhone, ahem.

Thanks to the clever, docudrama style direction by Matt Johnson, a crackling good screenplay by Johnson and Matthew Miller and searingly good performances from the ensemble cast, the scenes where BlackBerry crashes and burns are just as enthralling as the triumphant moments when an unlikely team of ragtag techno geeks based in Waterloo, Ontario, briefly revolutionized the mobile device world. Based on the book “Losing the Signal” by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff and sure to invite comparisons with “The Social Network” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” (a movie that is actually name-dropped by one character), this is one of those whip-smart, character- and story-driven gems that grabs you from the start and never lets go. I can’t wait to watch it again.



IFC Films presents a film directed by Matt Johnson and written by Johnson and Matthew Miller, based on the book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry” by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. Rated R (for language throughout). Running time: 122 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.

Jay Baruchel is an actor sometimes prone to overdoing it with the quirky mannerisms, but he delivers one of the best and most empathetic performances of his career as Mike Lazaridis, the silver-haired, socially awkward co-founder of the Canadian software company Research in Motion (RIM), which in the early 1990s consisted of Mike, his best friend and co-founder, the goofy man-child Douglas Fregin (played by director Johnson), and a handful of uber-nerds who spent their days soldering together bits and pieces of tech and taking breaks for heated “Star Trek” message board arguments and movie nights.

It’s a savvy but cash-poor operation on the verge of going out of business—until Mike partners up with the ruthless, take-no-prisoners businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), over the strong objections of Doug. Jim is a maniac—breaking phones, screaming at employees, threatening the likes of Palm CEO Carl Yankowski (a fantastic Cary Elwes), wheeling and dealing in ways that draw the attention of the SEC—but for a time, he’s the right maniac for the job.

Arguably the best scene in the movie occurs when Jim’s presentation to the Verizon board about a revolutionary new BlackBerry that will handle emails on a whole new level is about to die a quick death—until Mike stumbles in and unveils a cobbled-together prototype that leaves Saul Rubinek’s top exec speechless. Cue the real-life footage of Oprah Winfrey unboxing shiny blue BlackBerrys and proclaiming, “It sends and receives e-mail messages, it is also a cell phone!” as the studio audience erupts as if they’ve won the lottery.

BlackBerry quickly becomes a thing, a huge thing, with Mike gradually morphing into a suit-clad company exec, Doug desperately trying to retain the sense of playfulness and wonder that once permeated the company and Jim taking his bull-in-a-china-shop act on the road, making promises he can’t keep, manufacturing ways to elevate the stock and recruiting top engineers from places such as Google. You can almost sense the trackball scrolling off the rails even as BlackBerry becomes a dominant force in the market and in the popular culture.

With cinematographer Jared Raab shooting in a handheld style that sometimes gives us the feeling of eavesdropping on events from the hallway, “BlackBerry” retains a sense of authenticity even as it embraces the black comedy. For all of Mike’s genius, he’s taken completely by surprise when Steve Jobs unveils the first iPhone (“an iPod, a phone and an Internet communicator ... [in] one device”), and unwisely brushes it off as a silly toy that will never work. He’s also blind to Jim’s increasingly reckless actions and seems incapable, or unwilling, to make tough choices about the company’s future. (Doug might have been the goofy one, but he was also smart enough to see the end coming, and he sold his BlackBerry stock at its height in 2007 and became one of the wealthiest man in Canada.)

In the end, though, “BlackBerry” isn’t a cautionary tale about greed or hubris; it’s the story of someone who executed a great idea and was on top of the game—until someone came up with an even better idea that sent the BlackBerry packing to the back of your junk drawer.

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