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  • Nate Adams

'BlackBerry' review: Cell phone's origin chronicled in rowdy dramedy


Courtesy of IFC Films

 

During Matt Johnson’s insightful and mockumentary style dramedy “BlackBerry,” one Google engineer mutters to an executive during a closed-door meeting that the company is thinking of banning the phone (this is in the mid-2000’s by the way) because productivity had dwindled (“Crackberry is what we call it”). It serves as the ultimate reminder of how much BlackBerry, with its expansive keyboard and, at the time, innovative technology, controlled and influenced the market, estimated at its peak to be 45%, fostering the era of smartphones (for better or worse) and changing the digital landscape as we knew it. 


The once dominant phone’s rocky origins are fully displayed in co-writer and director Matt Johnson’s “BlackBerry” an Aaron Sorkin by way of David Mamet-inspired riff that, while occasionally uneven, puts an engaging spotlight on the cellular behemoth and the engineers/technicians who made it possible. Johnson has assembled a crackerjack crew, including himself, to help round out the cast, notably “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” alum Glenn Howerton who must’ve chugged several Red Bulls before the cameras rolled in one of the more scenery chewing performances of recent memory. He plays Jim Bastille, the power-hungry mogul who saw immediate upside potential in Canadian tech start-up Retail in Motion (RIM) because it’s wiz kid founder Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel - solid) found a way to tap into the wireless airspace and send emails on cell phones. 


In its early days, RIM was a safe haven for technicians, with co-founder Doug (Johnson - embodying the full epitome of ‘90s pop culture) in charge of morale, like planning regular movie nights. Yet, when Bastille brings the financial prowess, mixed in with Lazaridis knowledge on broadband bandwidth, the company explodes overnight. Soon, it’s not so much about the quality of the device, but how quickly they can move units through Verizon. Such is the tale of any corporate titan who assumes they’re too big to fail, but “BlackBerry” employs almost a sitcom-like aesthetic, shooting frames in awkward close-ups to trick the audience into thinking they’re watching a documentary. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Johnson’s previous films, “The Dirties,” and “Operation Avalanche” used similar tactics. 


Compared to those two, Johnson has been given a considerable budget upgrade and the filmmaker never loses the sensibilities that made those smaller movies cult favorites. The major differentiator in “BlackBerry” being the star power: Baruchel gives a commendable performance playing Lazaridis as the shy, geeky dork who eventually morphs into full blown power player eager to slit throats and cut costs alongside Howerton’s near diabolical and cartoonish portrayal. The latter brings just enough juice to not thwart the movie’s overall mission. Seriously wanted to give Howerton a Tylenol after the movie ended due to his expletive-laden, loud-mouth rendition of a shady guy who got BlackBerry into serious SEC trouble (and, in one the film’s lesser plot points, tried to purchase an NHL team). 


In a year where we’ve already seen “Tetris” and “Air” exploit their respective brands, “BlackBerry” really doesn’t have anything to sell other than how quickly you can fade from public view, as evident by the 0% market share BlackBerry has today. Still, it has plenty to say about not compromising your values and staying on the right side of history while treating people with respect. The movie is also extremely loose, face-paced, and ratchets up the tension in the same vein of “Glengarry Glen Ross” which, ironically enough, gets name dropped in the movie. Johnson, who shares screenwriting credits with Matthew Miller, wisely doesn’t turn the movie into a pure nostalgia play, instead keeping the RIM brain trust and the countless hours of work at the forefront of the movie's focus. Helping to showcase an authentic look at the company that launched the cell phone revolution. 


No offense to Nextel.


Grade: B+ 


BlackBerry opens in theaters Friday, May 12th. 


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