Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. IFC Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, May 12.
Is there anything worse than becoming obsolete? It’s a fear many share — to be slowly forgotten and discarded, left on a proverbial roadside as the rest of the world continues to innovate at pace around us. It isn’t just a business concern, but a human one: the innate craving for relevancy in a world where something or someone shinier than you is always around the corner.
The BlackBerry, with its distinctive QWERTY click-click keypad, met a sobering fate when it faded into quiet obscurity in the past decade — going from having a 43 percent market share in 2010 to zero percent just six years later — and when it was announced that a film charting the smartphone’s rise and fall had landed a Berlinale competition slot, one’s initial thoughts were: oh, that old thing?
But “BlackBerry,” which follows Canadian software company Research in Motion and the mistakes made by co-CEOs Mike Lazarides (Jay Baruchel) and Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), uses lashes of retrospective irony to dive into the precarity of monolithic success. With a good deal of zippy snark à la “The Social Network” and a sense of deadpan comedy straight from the “Succession” playbook, “BlackBerry” is the kind of mid-budget marvel that doesn’t seem to come around often anymore.
With it, director and screenwriter Matt Johnson takes a plot that could be a dull walk-through of the phone’s Wikipedia page and transforms it into something altogether more biting and blithe, less a cautionary tale than a gently mocking takedown of corporate hubris.
It’s hard to remember where it all went wrong for the BlackBerry: one day men were more likely to ask for a girl’s BBM pin than her phone number, and then the existence of the phone was seemingly scrubbed from our collective memory. We meet Lazarides and his bumbling co-founder Douglas Fregin (played by Johnson himself) in 1992, when Research in Motion is more an after-school club of film nerds than budding start-up, before a catastrophic product pitch somehow piques the interest of tech businessman Balsillie.
It’s not long before Lazarides’ innovative product and Balsillie’s shrewd salesmanship sends the phone skyrocketing. The beginning of the end arrives in 2007 when Steve Jobs unveiled the touchscreen Apple iPhone, immediately making the BlackBerry look like a quaint antique.
Beyond plot twists and turns, though — of which there are many, in a surprisingly fascinating peek into the developments of handheld telephony over the past three decades (stay with me) — Johnson’s direction and script is the movie’s secret weapon. While adapted from Jacquie McNish’s book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry,” it is Johnson’s trademark style that elevates the material.
In a scrappy, DIY-esque sensibility also adopted in 2013’s “The Dirties” and 2016’s “Operation Avalanche,” the outlook is zany and the camera is shaky, deploying endless hand-held comic zooms to enforce a kind of mockumentary smarm. His character is obsessed with movie strong men in works like “Wall Street” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” yet this film lampoons that very image, exposing the hollowness within.
The audience are all in the joke, being fully cognisant of the BlackBerry’s fall from grace; the way Johnson invites us to poke fun at the story and its players initially feels strange, but soon becomes second nature (the phone itself, after all, was dubbed “CrackBerry” and considered the first addictive smartphone). Where it should perhaps feel grating to have the director play such an exaggeratedly bone-headed character of his own attention-grabbing invention (the real Fregin looks like a nice man that you would pay your taxes to), this layer of fictionalization only ameliorates the comic beats. Throw in Jay McCarrol’s tongue-in-cheek electro score and the way company engineers keep pushing up eyeglasses that are already high on the bridge of their nose, and you’re left with something undeniably funny and yet somehow not mean-spirited.
It’s not a film in which the people depicted would be happy or flattered with their portrayal; Baruchel’s Lazarides is a pushover with a severe shortage of charisma, while Howerton’s Balsillie is a comic-book Machiavelli of rapacious unlikeability. Yet, alongside Johnson, this central trio put on stellar performances in a film that seems largely unconcerned with personal backstories or money. Baruchel in particular is playing things startlingly small — not, ahem, phoning it in, but rather acting as a neat and necessary straight foil to the other two leads’ megalomania.
It’s all a rather fascinating story that we didn’t even know we would be interested in — the way that, both personally and professionally, the need to endlessly innovate in order to stay relevant is exhausting at best and soul-destroying at worst, robbing you of the ability to relax and live in the moment. Here, one’s success always means another’s failure, and therein lies the deeply depressing issue at the heart of capitalism. BlackBerry aren’t the first casualty of this and they won’t be the last. And when a shiny new toy catches our eye, we won’t hesitate to upgrade to the next best shiny thing.
“BlackBerry” premiered at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. IFC Films will release it later this year.