Smart Phones by Smart People and Smarter Alecks
Sometimes a keyboard isn't just a keyboard in "BlackBerry."
It’s interesting to me how, in a scene that’s placed amid a character’s personal and legal turmoil, the co-CEO of a major phone company would scream at the board of a major sports organization for an extended period of rage, leaving them with the statement “I’m from Waterloo! Where the vampires hang out!” Now, this may or may not have happened as depicted (may not, more than likely), but it says a lot in a single line about the kind of story that the film BlackBerry is telling, and it’s mostly done through the seething frustrations and the desperate vulnerabilities that its actors portray. The movie, in this way, is oh-so-funny and oh-so-excellent.
It’s about the rise and ultimate fall of Research in Motion’s (RIM) revolutionary phone the BlackBerry, which was known for its convenient size, its function for easy on-the-go email and text-based communications, and of course, its built-in keyboard that was thumb-friendly- all with a lovable clicking sound. Things begin with smart but nerdy clods meeting a smart but wannabe business trendsetter. The camera moves around not unlike the voyeuristic and in-the-moment style of the tv show The Office (all versions), with emphasis-establishing quick zooms and documentary-like distance from its subjects. After an awkward but not unfriendly pitch meeting, Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, the co-CEO in the opening of this review) offers up his corporate acumen to the motley crew of techies, led by Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug (Director Matt Johnson). From here, misstep after misstep becomes success after success, but not without great will and effort.
BlackBerry is an almost feel-good underdog tale only in the sense of short-lived glory and the ultimate victory and vindication of just one character. It’s not really a cautionary tale, but rather a fantastical interpretation of what happened to whom and how. It might as well be a lost modern entry from Esop’s Fables, with a simple lesson to learn for sure, but so simple that it goes without saying. BlackBerry is at its best when it has room to breathe and space to get loud. It’s theatrical in the best sense of the word, and a finely shot and composed comedy of misfits and mistakes.
The biggest misfit of them all in BlackBerry is actor Glenn Howerton, known for his role in the show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. As Jim Balsillie, Howerton goes up in volume, notch by notch, as the movie progresses, and not just vocally. Yes, he yells like an exasperated and eccentric R. Lee Ermey, but never cartoonishly. Iconic, but never like a comic strip caricature. Always on edge, Howerton is a blast to behold, turning a corporate shark into a classic tragedy. His Balsillie runs like Tom Cruise from tarmac to tarmac, screaming through his phone and at his terrified assistant, trying to ship-shape this mess of geekdom into something that he can sell. Should we build a commemorative statue of Howerton’s Balsillie in Waterloo? Absolutely.
Director Matt Johnson’s previous two features, The Dirties and Operation Avalanche, both extremely creative found-footage films, had a giddy nature to their productions. Is it because Johnson himself comes off as someone with the mindset of a kid in a toy store? Maybe. Is it because he’s having fun? Yes. BlackBerry follows suit but on a slightly bigger canvas with a more well-known cast (Michael Ironside plays the big and sweaty wound that assists RIM in its own destruction). Each of his films, in some way, deals with the act of filmmaking and blurring fact with fiction- or the other way around. In BlackBerry, this is an element that’s buried a bit in the writing, but it becomes all the more visible upon seeing the film multiple times. Johnson can’t help himself. He makes this very specific and kind of real series of events about filmmaking itself too, at least in its ability to craft and re-craft history in a malleable form. The pen is mightier than the sword.
“The world is a vampire,” sang Billy Corgan. But the vampires aren’t in Waterloo; they’re attacking it from the outside. Identity and perception, sacrificing for greatness only to be left as a footnote, stress upon stress, and Apple ruining some s**t. BlackBerry is telling the tale of high school politics, Canadian insecurity, and man vs self in beast mode- and it’s all in every scene.
There’s a brilliant moment early on when Howerton’s Balsillie accepts an offer from Baruchel’s Lazaridis. Watching hockey, Howerton is staring past the screen, and almost directly at Baruchel from across town, starting right before he answers the phone. Howerton is impatiently showing his lack of weakness - I imagine the character practicing in the mirror how to do this - which is a weakness on its own. There’s confidence in recognizing your own hangups. Maybe things would’ve worked out better if these guys didn’t care so much about appearances. 5/5
BlackBerry is now playing in theaters.
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