Blackberry (IFC Films, R)

There’s a visual gag towards the beginning of BlackBerry that I heartily hope is based in the truth of the real story. When then-floundering businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) first visits the humble offices of Research in Motion (RIM) — the company that was to become the maker of BlackBerry devices — the handful of engineers employed there are busy celebrating their victories in inter-office computer gaming by moving a plunger from atop the loser’s computer to the winner’s. Later, when they are co-CEOs, Balsillie alludes to this incident to convince RIM’s co-founder Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) to make a critical decision for the company’s future. The film’s well-deployed comedy continually emphasizes the outsider status of its main characters and reminds us of how far they’ve managed to climb — from plunger players to power players.

Another aspect of the film which keeps the outsider theme afloat is the casting of its two leads. Comedy stars Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton are upstarts when it comes to widely-seen dramatic acting, so their portraying real upstarts in a comedically-tinged drama makes all the sense in the world. Baruchel has always been typecast as a fretful nerd, and while he uses that energy to his advantage in the film’s first half, the arc of his character leans toward his learning to be assertive. He brings a welcome subtlety to Lazaridis as chaos begins erupting within the company. Howerton’s Balsillie is assertive to a fault. A lesser actor would have literally torn apart the scenery, but Howerton manages to find an almost sympathetic pathos that carries his scenes while he’s away from the company, secretly plotting to buy and move the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

For both men, it all comes back to a desire to be taken seriously within the tech and business worlds. Something I admire a great deal about Matt Johnson’s writing and direction is that these motivations aren’t explained through some big speech or prolonged verbal sparring. His incisive dialogue and sustained use of close-up shots implies a pressurized claustrophobia as the two men rise to power. The film then wisely sprawls out a bit when BlackBerry is in its prime, making over twenty billion dollars in sales annually. Just as wisely, the film coils back up again as competition and greed kick in. Johnson’s keen sense of what contributes to a theme also helps the film avoid feeling predictable, even though we all know where BlackBerry devices ended up. Johnson also deserves praise for allowing himself to be seen as the biggest goofball in his own film. He plays Douglas Fregin, RIM’s other co-founder and Lazaridis’ lifelong friend.

In terms of who’s to blame for the company’s downfall, it’s about fifty-fifty in the final analysis. Balsillie had a few other harebrained and unethical tricks up his sleeve outside of his NHL dreams, and of course the BlackBerry was never going to be able to compete with the iPhone. I love that Johnson also makes a point of showing how outdated the business model became. It should come as no surprise that there are many adults today that can’t remember a world where minutes were the hottest commodity in communications technology. | George Napper

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