BlackBerry movie film Glenn Howerton Jay Baruchel review

BlackBerry is one of the funniest films of the year

4.5 out of 5 stars

With his latest film, BlackBerry, director Matt Johnson takes a Canadian approach to game-changing innovation. Inspired by a book charting the phone company’s rise and fall, the movie takes place over two decades. Though working with the tropes of “genius at work launches an invention that will change the world,” the cinematic approach undercuts much of the romanticism.

Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) has cracked the code to invent smartphones, but it’s not without the help of “shark” businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) that the company will take off. Under the tremendous weight of the American capitalist project, BlackBerry takes off by delivering an incredible product and some ingenious marketing. Pressured to compete against the churning, insatiable progress of the USA, they struggle to keep up in a race they were never meant to compete in.

BlackBerry circumvents cheerleader patriotism by highlighting the limits of the Canadian system. The BlackBerry team doesn’t have the same resources or ability to scale as even a minor American telecom; to succeed, it has to appeal to and work directly with the American public and, therefore, the companies that control those markets. Even within Canada, there’s this idea that without the baptism of American acceptance, you’ll never get in the door of a major meeting. Though BlackBerry briefly competes and even beats out the competition, working within Canada — for better and for worse — eventually catches up with them. Where inevitably, in the American version of this narrative (as seen in movies like The Social Network) we are often shown that it’s lonely at the top, those movies (except maybe Citizen Kane) rarely pinpoint that the pursuit itself is corrupted, not just the inevitable endpoint. BlackBerry finds itself questioning the system, which doesn’t breed new innovation as much as it squashes optimism, engages in ethically dubious practices and leads to a world increasingly void of hope and progress. 

BlackBerry movie film Matt Johnson Jay Baruchel review
BlackBerry RIM cast including Jay Baruchel (left) and Matt Johnson (centre)

The against-the-odds narrative, common in American cinema, becomes something greater. It becomes a screed against endless progress, an unsustainable model that dilutes the quality of the products we consume and our values. Director Matt Johnson has gone on record to say he doesn’t care much about the tech industry but sees the film as a parable for Canadian cinema. Read in that way, the movie exposes the English Canadian conundrum that forces you to be yourself and have the world stacked against you; continue to work within the Canadian system that will keep you buried and lead to inevitable, crushing disappointment, or sign on with the Americans, maybe at the expense of your soul. 

The film gets at something about the Canadian identity that few of our movies do. Our inferiority complex is neither charming nor noble but a direct result of being inferior to America in nearly every way. It’s not so much that Canadians are somehow morally “better” than Americans, but in this unequal relationship, we increasingly identify ourselves by what we’re not. Yet, as the film showcases, given the right opportunity, the polite veneer fades away. The so-called Canadian values championed in many other recent films suddenly and “mysteriously” disappear, and they lose their course. 

Johnson’s previous films — The Dirties and Operation Avalanche, as well as his TV show, Nirvanna the Band the Show — collapsed the line between fiction and non-fiction. Though more tightly structured than any of those projects, Johnson brings that chaotic energy to the film. Often shot (sometimes illegally) in real locations with semi-real actors, his style encourages improvisation and unpredictability. The tension is palpable. The effect not only serves the story by replicating a kind of “disruptive” synergy touted by the tech industry but undercuts the self-seriousness of many similar narratives, which overemphasize genius at the expense of context. 

A double-header of incredible performances bolsters the film. Jay Baruchel gives a career-best performance as the introverted innovator Mike Lazaridis. Costumed with a grey, then white wig, he evokes a remarkable physical transformation. His character turns inward, like a turtle protected but also burdened by his shell. More than just pantomime, though, the subtle variations of how this persona adjusts to different social and business contexts and inevitably evolves highlight an intelligent and observant man willing to play the part to see his dreams come true. In stark contrast, Glenn Howerton gives a maniacal and intense performance as Jim Balsillie, the self-serving shark who can compete with the Americans. No one in the history of cinema has watched a hockey game on TV with the dead-eyed stare of a serial killer (without actually being one). Rather than clash, the vastly different performance styles only serve and inform one another. 

BlackBerry serves the basic purpose of outlining the story behind the world’s first smartphone, but it excels at telling a bigger story about being a small fish in a large pond. The movie is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but with the kind of sting that burrows deep into your flesh. It’s a movie that avoids easy clichés and questions the narrative of the well-meaning, good-natured Canadian stereotype. ■

BlackBerry (Dir. Matt Johnson)

BlackBerry opened in Montreal theatres on Friday, May 12, and is streaming now in Canada on VOD.

For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.