Tech icons Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs have inspired prestige dramas like The social network and Steve Jobs. But for Mike Lazaridis, Doug Fregin and Jim Balsillie, the minds behind the groundbreaking Blackberry, their rise and fall is the stuff of comedy. Or at least it is as presented by co-writer, director and co-star Matt Johnson in the frenzy Black berry.
Making its North American premiere at the SXSW Festival, Black berry he is in good company with Tetris, another tech-centric biopic that turns potentially boring business topics into laughs. Beyond their superficial similarities, both films succeed or fail because of their central cast.
What is Black berry about?
In 1996, Doug (Johnson) and Mike (Jay Baruchel in a sparkling silver wig) had an encounter that would change their lives forever. The best inventors are not very interesting. Always decked out in a t-shirt, youthful graphic tees and gym shorts, Doug’s disdain for routine business activities is as sharp as his tattered headgear. Meanwhile, Mike, wearing geeky aviator glasses and a shirt the color of an old envelope, looks more like an unassuming bank clerk than the next big tech star. It’s no surprise, then, that hitman Jim (Glenn Howerton shaved into a bald menace) can barely contain his revulsion. But a great idea is a great idea, and even with their clumsy tone – “a mobile phone and email machine all in one” – it’s clear that this is a great idea.
Despite their personality clashes and periods of mistrust, the Canadian trio is turning this hybrid device into a whole new industry. Black berry chronicles their gritty beginnings, their heady success, and then the outrageous manipulations — and crimes — committed in an effort to keep them at the top of the smartphone game once the iPhone arrives.
Black berry is a cautionary tale with humor and heart.
Through the three intertwined arcs of Doug, Mike, and Jim, the script (co-written by Johnson and Matthew Miller) weaves a gritty tale of Goofus vs. Greed. Doug is the kind of guy who will report features Star Wars on a professional pitch and fight passionately to uphold silly office traditions like quirky piston placement and a weekly movie night — deadlines be damned! But as their company’s capabilities grow, Mike is lost – as Doug might put it – to the Dark Side.
Jim, a shark in a suit, is always on the move up the corporate ladder and will not suffer fools or buffoons. Where Johnson brings an almost obnoxious demeanor to Mike, Howerton channels the comic rage he’s shown throughout It’s always sunny in Philadelphia to a ruthless point, immersing it relentlessly in BlackBerry’s corporate culture. Sure, at first Mike pushes back to maintain the integrity of his invention and the loyalty of his employees. But money changes people. Until Black berry hits the film’s predictable metamorphosis in the middle, Mike seems sharper in more ways than one.
Glenn Howerton beats hilarity. Jay Baruchel struggles in a straight man role.
Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie in “BlackBerry.”
Credit: IFC Films
Amidst business meetings, furious contract negotiations and outright fights, Black berry is less interested in the history of the phone than in the battle for Mike’s soul. Johnson plays himself and his indolent exuberance as the crazy angel on Mike’s shoulder, while Howerton is a capitalist devil. Both deliver performances that strip away the cobwebs of prestige biographies in favor of something funnier and wilder. As long ago Sunny fan, Howerton’s outbursts alone do Black berry it’s worth seeing. Unfortunately, Baruchel in his center is fooling around.
A comedic actor who made his mark playing lovable dupes, he’s oddly described as a mild-mannered introvert who mumbles and emotes through tiresomely suppressed expression. Baruchel is sincere in his performance, flashing a cheerful smile and shouldering a rigid physicality that speaks to Mike’s internalized struggle. But he never quite clicks into the role, feeling like he’s drifting between warring dragons. No punches or punches, Baruchel is lost. And since his character is the emotional stakes of the film, Black berry it never quite comes together.
As a director, Johnson’s energy is contagious. Before the SXSW premiere, he took the stage in Doug’s costume, excitedly talking to the audience about the cuts made to the film from its World Premiere at Berlinale.(Opens in a new tab) Its vaguely chaotic vibes are intoxicating Black berry with jerky pacing, plot running, editing and archival footage aided by sharp stock characters. For example, Michael Ironside screams as a business bully, while Rich Sommer warmly shrugs as a low-key but intelligent nerd.
Even if you don’t know the story behind it Black berrywhich is based on the book Losing the signal by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, you might as well predict it, as tech icons in movies rarely get Hollywood happy endings. So Johnson smartly wastes no time, moving quickly—though not with much grace—through plot points, occasionally resting to enjoy character moments and appearances, one of which drew cheers from the tech-savvy SXSW crowd.
Although occasionally a bumpy ride, Johnson brings plenty of serious nostalgia for this era to the film with a soundtrack that boasts Joy Division, Moby and Mark Morrison(Opens in a new tab)as well as supporting elements such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II on VHS and, of course, the cathartic click of keys on the titular device. Overall, the journey is more rolling than rocky. Although not among the most disappointing comedies of the year, Black berry manages to find humor in the crushing of this true story, giving an ending that is simple but satisfying.
Black berry made its world premiere at SXSW 2023. followed by a theatrical release on May 12.