- Engaging story of hubris and ambition
- Great lead performances
- Solid laughs
- Distracting direction
- A little too inspired by "The Social Network"
- Overuse of comedic effect
Director Matt Johnson brings an entertaining, uneven, tragic retelling of the world’s first smartphone in “BlackBerry”.
‘BlackBerry’ tells the story of Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the two men that charted the course of the spectacular rise and catastrophic demise of the world’s first smartphone.
Ever heard the punchline or expression “We have *random thing* at home”? Here’s the premise: A kid in the backseat of a car asks their mother “Mom, can we have “The Social Network” today?” The mother responds “We have “The Social Network” at home”. Canadian director Matt Johnson’s newest film “BlackBerry” is David Fincher’s “The Social Network” at home. But, that doesn’t mean the Canadian biopic isn’t more compelling than it ought to be. “BlackBerry” centers around the creation of the world’s first smartphone. The film begins with Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his business partner/best friend Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson) horribly pitching the idea of the smartphone itself to businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) who shuts them down, telling them the company he works for is not interested. Later, Balsillie returns back to them as a free agent, offering to lend his business savvy ways to their overly tech sensibilities….in exchange for a CEO position and a huge chunk of the company. After some negotiating, Lazaridis and Balsillie both take on the company as “co-CEOs”, leading to a meteoric rise and a tragic, catastrophic fall.
With its straight-forward narrative and business lessons plainly presented to its audience, there is no doubt that the strongest element of “BlackBerry” is its acting, specifically with Glenn Howerton as the cunning, headhunting Jim Balsillie. This is the top-notch, asshole-you-love-to-hate role the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” alumni was born to play. Howerton sinks his teeth into the role with every profanity-laced rant, insult, tirade, grim look and everything that comes into playing an effectively cunning but sadly doomed character such as Balsillie. A strong foil to Howerton is Jay Baruchel as the socially-awkward, geeky Lazaridis. Jay Baruchel is one of those rare actors who is good in the right role but always run the risk of being typecasted in that same “right role”. This makes another parallel to “The Social Network” with Eisenberg’s terrific performance as Mark Zuckerberg being the same win that has caused him to walk that fine line in his career of not being typecasted into that same nerdy, arrogant role again. Baruchel may have to deal with the same fate but I digress. Baruchel’s performance as Lazaridis becomes stronger in the film’s second half as the film gives his role more room to breathe as the company becomes more successful and he has to make more tough decisions as “co-CEO” (an amusing recurring joke). He pairs very well against Howerton’s Balsillie with Howerton giving him some of the best deadpan, annoyed facial expressions.
A factor that doesn’t work in casting unfortunately is director Matt Johnson himself as Douglas Fregin. Fregin has great combative moments with Howerton’s Balsillie but outside of those moments of solid humor, Johnson simply just tries too hard to have Fregin be the comedic effect of a film that already has enough of it. Moments of his character just saying something idiotic paired with clueless facial expressions are an effect of putting too many damn cherries on top. While the fraying friendship between Lazaridis and Fregin is strong, there are many moments where Fregin just isn’t needed. In addition to Johnson’s misguided casting, there’s also his dizzying directing. In its first half, the film relies too much on its’ “zoom in/zoom out” style of directing as if it’s constantly telling the audience “this is happening in real time!” Think Tony Scott’s directing in his “Denzel” era minus all the colorful cinematography. The directing style becomes less distracting as “BlackBerry” moves into his second half which, if you haven’t caught on by now, is the film’s stronger half. As Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller’s script digs deep into these characters’ ambition as well as their ripe pickings for the human trap known as hubris, there are great dramatic character moments that make their way to the screen. The second half digging into the inevitable, heartbreaking downfall of this great creation almost forgives itself for its fun yet reckless first half, becoming a reverse rise-and-fall mirror to its central story.
With time, “BlackBerry” will most likely be summarized as a “Social Network”-lite effort but that doesn’t mean that its “geek” tragedy won’t be regarded as any less compelling. Strong performances from its two leads as well as its great balance of comedy and drama makes “BlackBerry” more of a solid “Social Network-inspired” effort than a “Social Network” ripoff. While Johnson’s directing (and acting) can be a bit obnoxious at first, it’s the film’s writing and character development that make the ride worthwhile. We have characters with clear motivations and clear flaws and the emotional payoff in the second half is made all the better for it.