We are in a peak era of nostalgia driven films. Not just in the form of IPs and another, exhaustive Disney live action remake on the way, but even in the drama department. Hollywood seems obsessed with asking the question, “How did this get made?” and “Ever wonder what happened to THAT?” The “brand” film has been pretty relentless, too. “Air,” “Tetris,” “Flamin’ Hot,” and now “Blackberry” all seek to tell the same story and answer the same questions. Some are far better than others, and I’m happy to say that “Blackberry” fairs far better than the majority of its peers. Riveting, thrilling and funny, the film is elevated by its stellar performances and solid pacing.
The film delivers a scathing commentary on capitalism and corruption instead of solely celebrating its product, something the other films seem to miss in their fictionalized retellings. ‘”Blackberry” may not be a story that needs to be told, but it’s a story that is told really well and delivers a great viewing experience, especially for those that remember the good old days of early smartphones.
Directed by Matt Johnson, written by Johnson and Matthew Miller, “Blackberry” is a fictionalize true story about the rise and fall of one of world’s first and most prominent smartphone. It is 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. The film follows RIM /Blackberry founder and engineer Mike Lazaridis with the idea of putting the internet into a handheld device. He meets Jim Balsillie, a shrewd businessman who capitalizes on the meekness and disorganization of the small company in an effort to make money off their innovation. What transpires is a thrilling retelling of ups and downs, innovations, and how drastically greed and success can change you and disappear before your very eyes.
Like many of the films mentioned that fall into this genre, “Blackberry” wants to be “The Social Network” with every new BB Curve model it can create. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you can tap into the strengths while maintaining your identity. It doesn’t quite have the pop of its inspiration, but it is by far the best attempt at trying to recapture the magic. Johnson approaches the larger than life story with his tapered down independent film flare, making the big giant tech company feel small with tight, close framing and shot composition paired with grainy and dated cinematography. The flare is in the narrative itself, and Johnson smartly chooses to highlight his performers over any kind of flashy, razzle dazzle set pieces. It clearly finds its characters and their lives over the 11 years of dominance and steep, sudden fall the most interesting parts of the story, and this allows it to remain unencumbered by any kind of distractions.
Johnson clearly understands how to make the most of his filmmaking skills, and he certainly knows how to get the most out of his performers. Jay Baruchel as Lazaridis and Glen Howerton as Balsillie are near unrecognizable, turning in solid dramatic performances that we have yet to see from both of them. I’m a sucker for comedians and comedic actors taking stabs at drama, largely because it often pays dividends. I mean, sure. Not every comedic performer can make the transition, but the ones who do absolutely thrive, and Baruchel and Howerton have the juice, baby. Howerton in particular is a stand out, embodying the business shark, sleazy salesman persona to near perfection. I genuinely hope he enjoyed the drama experience because his work in “Blackberry” is a star making performance if he wasn’t already a star and demonstrates a whole new facet to his already established talent.
There isn’t a bad performance here. Any time you can bring in Michael Ironside to yell at people for a few scenes automatically gets additional points. The show of talented turns help to elevate a film that by all accounts should be buried next to wherever the last Storm was laid to rest. Do we really need to know what happened to Blackberry? I don’t think anyone has really thought about what happened to their trackpad all those years ago, so no I don’t believe its a story that needs to be told. And yet, this film makes a bold (no I will not stop with the puns) statement of necessity. Whether or not it’s able to carry that weight through to the final judgement of need becomes irrelevant in the face of terrific execution, thrilling pacing, tech fueled humor and top notch performances.
It does seem to be a little undercooked in the sense of its sprawling narrative across the years, and there are times where characters disappear or set off to pursue their own adventures without much groundwork being laid for what they’re doing or not doing. I’m always thankful for any film that manages to get itself under 2 hours, and I’m not completely sold on the idea that “Blackberry” needs to be longer. But it does feel like there are some things missing from the story, and Johnson clearly had to make some sacrifices in the script and editing to keep the pacing tight and exciting. Its final act gets a little muddled in an attempt to wrap everything up and put a bow on a complex story, but it never loses its intrigue despite biting off a little bit more than it can chew.
Johnson’s choices to go after capitalism instead of celebrate it is another smart choice that really allows the film to stand out among the others. While it does follow a rather predictable story, the choice to address the cultural and character shifts throughout the years and how the cut throat world of business can make or break you. And sometimes, as is the case with Blackberry itself, it can do both. It’s own creation almost acts as both protagonist and antagonist simultaneously, which is a rewarding departure from the other iterations that gloss over their own shades of gray in hopes that you’ll be swept away by the love of the brand they’re selling. This film wants you to remember the name and the experience, but it consistently reminds you of the dangers that come with meteoric rises and decisions dictated by greed that fuel the very lives we live and things we can’t live without.
“Blackberry” has no real business being this good, but much like its own Icarus ascension and plummet from the skies, it is full of good surprises. If for nothing else, you get to watch Howerton shout at a board of executives, “I’m from Waterloo, where the vampires hang out!”
That’s worth the price of admission in my book.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Blackberry” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.