Review by Thom Ernst – Film Correspondent
(May 12, 2023 – Toronto, ON) I am under no illusions that filmmaking is anything but a difficult and stressful endeavour, and yet director Matt Johnson and his band of merry film geeks, including producer/collaborator Matthew Miller manage to make film after film look like so much fun that I am always on the edge of turning in my critic credentials (whatever that might be) and beg them to let me play too.
Johnson’s latest, the much-anticipated BlackBerry is his most ambitious work yet, and, I think, the most fun. It’s the story of the rise of the first handheld computer to hit the market. Today we call them iPhones, but if fate favoured the underdog, we’d be calling them BlackBerrys.
The hook here is not necessarily simple, particularly for someone like me whose only interest in technology is in how to turn a device on and off. And gone are the edge-of-the-seat expectations that things will turn out alright in the third reel given that the story of BlackBerry has a well-publicized ending; Titanic-like endings, where as much as you might hope for a happy ending you know the iceberg’s coming and there just aren’t enough lifeboats. And so the appreciation in watching a film like BlackBerry is not in rooting for a possible winning outcome but reveling in the spectacle of inevitable disaster.
BlackBerry comes on the heels of similar stories of geniuses at play like Social Network, Tetrus, and even Jobs, the unfortunate Steve Jobs biopic. I would even toss in the 1988 made-for-tv movie, Breaking All the Rules about the making of the board game, Trivia Pursuit (those dudes are also Canadian). Most of these stories—and BlackBerry is one of them—whether told as satire or cautionary tales, have ready-made endings.
Matt Johnson is a filmmaker on the outside. But he is not on the outside looking in. Rather Johnson’s skill is to be an outsider looking further outside. His style has a ring of 70s independence cinema, a near documentary feel that captures moments of simulated spontaneity that endears the viewer to misfits who just happen to be the smartest guys in the room. And the irony of that is well portrayed by Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis and Johnson as his unlikely-to-succeed-on-his-own business partner, Doug Fregin. These guys—at least as they appear in the film—are jesters floundering in the presence of the boardroom bullies. Johnson frequently roots the comedy in Lazaridis and Fregin’s naivety and how that plays off against the arrogance of stiff-collared executives. The jest is in the contrast between the alpha and the subordinate with the subordinate sometimes gaining the upper hand.
But while humour is a driving force—and Johnson’s Fregin is the movie’s most prominent prankster—BlackBerry is a dark movie where the politics of manipulation and ivory tower games can turn good times into bad with little notice. One of the film’s more uncomfortable yet poignant moments plays witness to Lazaridis’ flailing attempts to rescue his product from oblivion in front of a baffled room of Verizon executives.
BlackBerry is the most Canadian of movies to reach the screen, with borders that could easily whittle down to Ontario; a Canadian business story set in Waterloo, Ontario chock full of Canadian references (Toronto Maple Leafs and a Pittsburgh Penguin/Hamilton connection), made by Canadians from an original source written by a Canadian journalist, starring Canadians (the Canadian roster includes the young—Barachuel, Johnson, and the veterans—Martin Donovan, Mark Critch, Michael Ironside, and Saul Rubinek).
It’s as Canadian as cottages and butter tarts. And yet the American contribution cannot be ignored particularly in the face of jeweled performances from Cary Ewles as a smarmy Palm Pilot exec, and Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsille, a live-wire corporate hot shot bouncing with the ferocity of water in a pan of hot oil. Balsille comes on like a white-collar baddie—maybe he is/maybe he isn’t. The joy of watching Howerton’s performance is how despicable his character can be, and yet without him, BlackBerry would never have risen in the first place. He’s a bully who we’re glad is on our side.
Lazaridis is the character with the largest arc in the film, and Baruchel pulls off the role with a wrenching performance of the meek thrown to the lions. Johnson’s Fregin is more grounded in the comic, combining elements of Jessie Eisenberg’s neurosis with John Belushi’s irreverence.
Inescapable is the discussion of fact versus fiction. Is BlackBerry true to the real story, which takes its cues from Globe and Mail business and technology journalist Sean Silcoff’s book, Losing the Signal? It’s hard to know, and not something I can answer, even with the real players chiming in to set the record straight. Best to view BlackBerry as a satire; an exaggeration of the facts to set the stage for a highly entertaining tragicomedy. BlackBerry, the film, manages the incredible feat of inspiring the audience (in this case, me) to dig deeper, to read more, and that’s an achievement everyone involved should be pleased with.
Watch the trailer, learn more about the cast and crew, BlackBerry opens today May 12, 2023. All images courtesy of Elevation Pictures.
Thom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward.