BlackBerry Review: Amusingly Dumbed-Down Smartphone Story

Odds are better than average that you’re reading this review on your phone. And that, once you got a smartphone, you sought out sites like this one to reflect your personal interests. You probably don’t even think about how that process came to be, as it’s just a natural part of life now. Would you like to see a movie about that? Maybe not in theory, especially if it were scrupulously fact-based and featured mostly marketing meetings. In BlackBerry, however, a movie about the first mass-produced smartphone, writer-director-actor Matt Johnson (The Dirties) is very clear upfront that he has made a fictionalized retelling. Essentially, as it plays out, it’s like a Kids in the Hall sketch version, set in the real-but-fake-sounding Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Johnson’s previous works have mostly been found footage and mockumentary, so the blending of truth and fiction is nothing new to him. For those who might go in expecting a “stranger than fiction” true story, however, here’s a quick corrective: BlackBerry inventor Mike Lazaridis, a Greek immigrant described by the Canadian Globe and Mail as “a beefy, friendly-looking guy, with poofy silver hair and an affable if supremely confident manner about him,” looks nothing like actor Jay Baruchel in successively worse white wigs and the body language of a terrified bunny. And the BlackBerry was not, in fact, named after a jelly stain on his shirt.

IFC’s slightly muddled marketing on the subject aside, the movie seems to be a bit truer than the Weird Al biopic, but quite a bit less so than The Social Network. Its point is less to document an actual product development process, and more to offer a parable of nerds colliding headfirst with cutthroat capitalism. Which is arguably the defining pop-cultural struggle of the last 20 years.

Mike and Doug’s Excellent Proposal

The movie’s Mike Lazaridis (Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (director Johnson) are old-school nerds, as in “Revenge of the…” who appear to have an ideal business, circa 1996. They sell modems for fat contracts, and their handful of employees mostly play Wolfenstein or argue on Star Trek fan boards during work hours. Mike’s the quiet genius while Doug, with his loudmouth, ever-present headband, and poorly styled T-shirts is reminiscent of Judah Friedlander’s more aggressive persona. Neither is particularly great at pitching their latest idea, an all-in-one device that combines a phone, pager, and email terminal in a pocket device.

After an awkward presentation to humorless executive Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) falls flat, Balsillie is himself fired but interested enough in the product to offer to take over Mike and Doug’s awkwardly named company, RIM (Research in Motion). Negotiating him down during a televised hockey game, Mike gets him to agree that they be co-CEOs and, from there, the fun begins. At least in this telling. Introverted Mike has all the smarts and the monomaniacal focus on making the best product. Hockey fiend Jim is a brash corporate guy who has never seen Star Wars but probably knows Glengarry Glenn Ross by heart. In between them is Doug, who imagines himself the hero of every underdog movie when he’s actually more of the real-life comic relief — to the extent that this can be called “real life,” anyway.

Cameos? As You Wish…

Mike and Doug’s posse of brilliant dorks love their movie nights, which turns some of the stunt casting here into a sly in-joke. Cary Elwes shows up as the CEO of Palm Pilot threatening a hostile takeover, which makes him a sort of dread corporate pirate. Michael Ironside in a bulked-up suit looks like Burl Ives playing the Kingpin in his role as a corporate disciplinarian. That the BlackBerry team would be among the real Elwes and Ironside’s biggest fans doesn’t require remarking upon; if you’re the target audience for this movie, you know. Balsillie, whose name feels like an obvious cheap joke set up, sees the pronunciation of it run the appropriate gamut. When he’s taking risks and rising, he insists it’s pronounced “BALLS-ly.” Later, as the company declines, it becomes “Ball-SILLY.”

In actuality, neither Mike nor Jim came away too badly, as the rich so often don’t. The rise-and-fall arc fits movie formula, but it’s more of a schadenfreude generator here. In hindsight, of course Mike’s fixation on a keypad seems pointlessly myopic, and Jim’s attempt to buy an American NHL team and move it to Canada insane. Left unsaid is the truism that these are the sorts of folks we are ultimately all subservient to, and the moment they can get rid of the classic, socially awkward nerds, they will.

Nerd-vana? Nevermind.

Nowadays, everyone from Chris Hardwick to Dwayne Johnson is a self-declared “nerd,” often based on something like the fact that they watched Saturday morning cartoons and played with Star Wars figures as a kid, just like everyone else. BlackBerry returns us to a time when it meant something else, and the folks to whom the label applied briefly seemed like they were on a permanent upswing. Instead, they became coopted, as the nouveau riche do. This may be an imaginary retelling, but it also feels like a pointed warning. However much you may love your job, it does not love you back if there’s the slightest chance it can be more profitable without you. The real Mike Lazaridis apparently understood this, always making time for his wife and kids that the movie doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of.

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As a director, Johnson likes to make audiences uncomfortable, but in playing Doug with a combination of goofy mugging and real passion, he telegraphs that you can laugh both at and with the characters onscreen. After all, the real ones laughed all the way to their fat severance checks.

Grade: 7/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 7 equals to “Good.” A successful piece of entertainment that is worth checking out, but it may not appeal to everyone.