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BlackBerry Review: The Fascinating Rise And Fall Of A Canadian Tech Giant

  • Excellent performances from lead cast
  • Brings humanity to tech story
  • Underutilizes Cary Elwes in a comically unnerving but sadly brief role

In the eyes of many, Apple basically invented the smartphone. And they may well have been responsible for taking what was then a luxury item for social climbing businessmen and putting it in the hands of mainstream consumers everywhere. But before Steve Jobs stood on a stage and announced the touchscreen that changed the world, there was the humble company Research in Motion, whose BlackBerry redefined what a cellphone could be. With self-assured performances from a cast that operates exactly on the line between comedy and drama, and with none of the smugness that so many films like this tend to have (thanks, Adam McKay), "BlackBerry," which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, is a charmingly good-natured, quintessentially Canadian morality tale.

Mike and Doug (Jay Baruchel and Matt Johnson, the latter of whom pulls triple-duty on this film, directing and writing as well as acting) have the tech idea of the century. They have a vision of a product that will combine the telephone, page, and computer all in one little device that can fit in the palm of their hand. Now, do they have the capital to get their project off the ground? No. The only contract they have they can't actually get paid for because, in true Canadian fashion, they're too nice to even send out an invoice. Do they have a working prototype? Also no. Do they have the charisma and killer business instincts to get a venture capitalist to invest in their idea? Absolutely not. What they do have is a dream, some technical know-how, a can-do spirit, and a virtually limitless supply of 1980s action films to get their crew of nerds through movie night. But actually building a successful company? They're going to need Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) for that.

The human element of BlackBerry

Balsillie, filled with the kind of ambition that simply couldn't be contained in his previous corporate job, promptly burns all of his bridges and goes all in on Research in Motion. He swiftly gets their ship in order, and after a manic production session that sees Mike build a working (albeit crude) prototype of his idea over the course of one frenzied evening, they're off to the races. And the rest is history. BlackBerry takes over the world (at least for a little while).

What works really well about "BlackBerry" is that it takes this cast of actors who are predominantly known for their comedic skills, and it puts them in an environment where they're able to use elements of what they do best, but with a little dramatic spin on it. When it comes to their roles in BlackBerry, the way it works is this: Mike (Baruchel) is the brains, Doug (Johnson) is the heart, and Jim (Howerton) is the muscle. Mike is uncompromising in his vision — our introduction to him is fixing an office intercom system with an annoying buzz, a physical manifestation of companies who have cut corners, creating products that are fundamentally flawed because they no longer care enough to strive for perfection. 

He wants to see his BlackBerry made, but not unless he can put out a product he can be proud of. Over the course of the film, we watch him torn between Doug, who encourages him to stay true to his values and operates as a physical manifestation of his conscience, and Jim, who just wants them all to make a lot of money by any means necessary. (Howerton is untethered in this role, filled with the rage and intensity lurking underneath every Harvard MBA.) Baruchel brings a tremendous amount of humanity to a character who seems to embody a kinder, gentler version of the tech industry, making it all the more disappointing when he sacrifices his ideals more and more over the years to keep the company afloat.

A Canadian sensibility

Aside from its impeccable cast, one of the best aspects of "BlackBerry" is how, well ... Canadian it is. It eschews the high drama that you might expect from an American counterpart, and none of its main characters are sociopaths looking to screw each other over. That's not to say that everything is sunshine and rainbows, but its tension comes from very human people trying to do what's best for themselves and the people around them, to varying degrees of effect.

Matt Johnson clearly thrives on the fact that with "BlackBerry," he gets to tell one of the great success stories of the tech industry, without the pressure of having a film filled with giants of the field that are instantly recognizable to audiences. If you make a movie about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, you're at least somewhat beholden to the image of these guys in the popular imagination. But with the founders of the BlackBerry phone, it's a blank canvas, where each actor has the freedom to make the characters their own. With an engrossing narrative driven by the mistakes people make on the road to success, its actors find notes of empathy in the meteoric rise and fall from grace that is "BlackBerry."

"BlackBerry" will be released in Canada on Friday, April 28.