The entrance and exit of the BlackBerry smartphone is truly an all-thumbs tale – that of a beloved keyboard on a game-changing wireless device, and a Canadian company (Research in Motion) not terribly dexterous with innovation after the market pie went from “CrackBerry”-flavored to Apple-forward.
Equal parts high-tension business saga and nerd comedy, Matt Johnson’s feature “BlackBerry” – adapted with co-writer Matthew Miller from a book about the phone’s meteoric life (“Losing the Signal”) — parses the origins of the device’s success and the seeds of its downfall. Naturally, the story is bracketed by scrappy sorcery on one end and Steve Jobs’ competition-destroying genius on the other, but at its heart is the strange-bedfellows relationship between soft-spoken engineer Mike Laziridis (a silver-haired Jay Baruchel) and his shrewd, take-no-prisoners co-CEO Jim Balsillie (a bald, scarily fulminous Glenn Howerton).
The result, at a well-paced but unnecessarily long two hours, is a seriocomic cautionary tale of butting personalities in a fast-changing world, told in a low-key, off-the-cuff observational style closer to mockumentary than recent tech-bio approaches like the flashy moral-monologuing of Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “Steve Jobs”) or the Shakespearean heft of “The Dropout.”
Maybe that’s the wry Canadian sensibility in Toronto-based Johnson and Miller, whose previous two movies (“The Dirties,” “Operation Avalanche”) were found-footage larks about the thrills and perils of collaboration. Though they’re working with a true story here – and a Canadian one at that, set mostly where RIM was headquartered, in Waterloo, Ontario – the vibe is the kind you’d get from a lively improv troupe on a fertile night on which an audience member shouts out, “What was BlackBerry?”
As depicted in the amusing first scenes – after an archival opening of author Arthur C. Clarke predicting our hyperconnected future, when “the whole world will have shrunk to a point” – the BlackBerry started in the mid-90s as the all-in-one brainchild (phone/email/pager) of Mike, who with his excitably goofy, headband-and-tee-shirt-wearing business partner Doug Fregin (Johnson) in tow, struggles to pitch their innovation to a bored, disdainful Jim, then an executive at a huge manufacturing outfit.
That nowhere meeting proves fortuitous, however, when Jim is fired and immediately pitches himself to Mike (who’s receptive) and Doug (who’s skeptical) as the sales-savvy savior of their cash-strapped, underexploited geek farm. Though he’s horrified at RIM’s stunted-adolescence culture, when he pushes Mike to get an instant prototype of his phone invention ready to show a telecom giant before someone beats them to it, Jim begins to realize that Mike is a genuine wizard, that they’re selling workplace independence not wireless minutes, and that the product will be life-alteringly huge.
Cut to the heyday of 2003: Mike’s team is finalizing their soon-to-be-addictive encrypted texting network and worrying there aren’t enough towers to handle exploding BlackBerry usage. Jim, practically living on private planes, is fending off a hostile takeover from Palm CEO Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes) with every cunning trick he can think of, one of which – stealing talent from other Internet giants – will come back to bite him and RIM. Meanwhile Doug, now more OG fixture than key employee, wonders where the heart and spirit went in his and Mike’s dream venture. In Johnson’s and Miller’s drolly sentimental narrative estimation, once a company takes away office movie nights, it loses its soul.
Of course, a business implosion is more complicated than that, and as “BlackBerry” whips around from confrontation to negotiation to hair-pulling and back, Johnson and the fine cast – which includes Saul Rubinek as a Verizon exec, Rich Sommer as a poached Google engineer, and Michael Ironside as an operations enforcer – bring plenty of flinty crisis energy to this Mamet-like tale of navigating and misinterpreting a new wireless Wild West. Nobody plays Jobs, but video of his legendary 2007 iPhone presentation is well-deployed as the harbinger it was for a company mindset too invested in holding what it owned (a professional class loving its keyboard) than looking up to see what was next (consumers addicted to touchscreens and apps).
The condensing of consequential shifts in fortune into relateably tense, humanly funny scenes is admirable, and the tech aspects are never too confusing that they pull away from the story’s stakes. Johnson’s verite-informed direction could be more fleet, but editor Curt Lobb keeps a mean pace, and Jay McCarrol’s electronic score does its era-setting part.
And while the script doesn’t get too dimensional or personal about Mike and Jim’s fascinatingly contrarian match-up, what works in Baruchel’s and Howerton’s engaging portrayals is a kind of keenly direct maskwork – the detail-fretting genius and the smiling shark – that befits the movie’s chosen operating system: a fizzy workplace comedy in which opposites memorably attract before they tragically detract. Until that epic fail, “BlackBerry” renders its legendary disruptors with a sometimes teasing, always indie-fortified respect.