Sandwiched between the releases of two massive Summer blockbusters, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3 and Fast X, were a meager selection of smaller films. There’s the hypnosis crime thriller from Robert Rodriguez starring Ben Affleck. There’s the sequel to the quiet, soft hit Book Club. There’s also Sony’s shabby looking live-action anime adaptation Knights of the Zodiac.
Then, there’s BlackBerry. If any of these small and mid-budget movies are worth your time, it is BlackBerry. A tech entrepreneur biopic in the style of a classical tragedy, Matt Johnson’s film charts the rise and fall of Research in Motion (RIM), the startup that developed the BlackBerry. In particular, it zooms in on the company’s co-CEO Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and what success and the pressures of the market turn him into as he and fellow CEO Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) bootstrap BlackBerry into a massive market earner.
There is something slightly unbalanced about the structure of this character transformation. Primarily, it occurs too late in the film. In the third act, it suddenly becomes apparent that Lazaridis, the once passive and withdrawn engineer, has become something of a tyrant without even realizing it. For what it’s worth, the traditional structure of a tragedy sees the central figure edging toward a fall from grace near the midpoint. Here, the film has little runway to work with once Lazaridis hits the tarmac and skids out into a hubris-fueled demise, causing the last act to feel rushed.
Beyond this, the story of BlackBerry is handled well. There is an energy and a constant tension to the dynamics between Lazaridis, Balsillie, and Lazaridis’ friend (and original RIM co-founder) Douglas Fregin (Johnson) which propels the film through multiple jumps in time. The film hums along like the incessant buzz of the late-1990s office intercoms that irk Lazaridis to his core. If you can get past characters who are more defined by nerdy pop culture references than by personality traits and glaringly off-kilter hairpieces, then you will find an effortlessly watchable film.
The central performances do a lot of legwork in concocting this energy. Baruchel handles the shift in his character such that (pacing aside) the newfound oblivious arrogance of Lazaridis is understandable. It is easy to see why Baruchel’s Lazaridis crumbles under the weight of his assignment and is ultimately unable to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the coming wave of smartphones spear-headed by Apple. Howerton, meanwhile, is doing what he does best, sitting comfortably in the pocket of the short-fused guy who blows his top whenever it is convenient for him to do so.
BlackBerry is destined to get lost in the early Summer shuffle of things, but I think it will find its audience once it lands on streaming. Fans of tech-based films like Steve Jobs or this year’s Tetris will likely find something to enjoy in BlackBerry.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)