In the ever-present biopic genre, the rise of technology companies has meant the rise of film and television stories about the people behind these companies. Pirates of Silicon Valley, Jobs, Steve Jobs, The Dropout, WeCrashed, and the best of the bunch, The Social Network. BlackBerry is the story of the rise of Canadian company Research in Motion, the business behind the titular early smartphone. In this, his third feature film, writer/director/co-star Matt Johnson has made an engaging film with solid performances, though it never quite transcends the trappings of the genre.
The film begins with a pitch meeting. Research in Motion founders Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (director Johnson) have brought their idea for a combination phone/pager/email machine to a manufacturing company. Lazaridis is the stereotypical bumbling genius – clumsy and struggling with the business side of things, but with vast technological knowledge. Fregin is his extroverted man-child partner. While waiting in the office, Lazaridis repairs an intercom system he feels is shoddy workmanship, having been mass-produced in China. The two are dismissed quickly by Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), an exec at the manufacturing company. He is scheming to steal the spotlight at his next, seemingly more important meeting, while absently directing the Research in Motion team to find a venture capital fund for their idea.
When Balsillie’s machinations end up getting him fired, he seeks out Lazaridis and Fregin. He proposes to provide them capital in exchange for a percentage of the company and being named CEO. He is talked into a smaller percentage and a co-CEO title. Balsillie quickly starts to regret his decision when he finds out that the company is in massive debt after a company takes advantage of Lazaridis’s meekness to drop out of a multi-million dollar deal to sell modems. Seeing Lazaridis’s phone idea as the only way out of the mess the company is in, Balsillie asks for a quick prototype that he can start taking to meetings to try and sell. This is where the film’s central clash of wills begins. Balsille thinks a non-working shell is enough for his purposes, but Lazaridis refuses to send out something that isn’t at least somewhat operational. It’s a classic money vs. integrity argument. In the meeting with Verizon, Lazaridis is able to show off his technical know-how and impresses exec John Woodman (Saul Rubinek). The film quickly jumps to the BlackBerry in production and starting to gain market share. Along the way, Balsillie and Lazaridis fend off a takeover attempt from PalmPilot CEO Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes). Balsille also solves the issue of needing additional engineering talent by setting up shady stock deals for new hires. Things come to a head when pressures from the SEC and the looming specter of the iPhone require tough decisions from both Lazaridis and Balsillie.
Courtesy IFC Films
The primary strength of BlackBerry is in the film’s performances. Especially those of Howerton and Baruchel. Howerton plays Balsille as an angry force of nature – a man with the all too common combination of tremendous business sense and minimal scruples. Baruchel’s Lazaridis is a quieter performance, but with an intensity of its own. His is the less showy character, but he isn’t giving less than Howerton. The best scenes in the film are when the two of them are together. In the second half of the film, when they are essentially leading separate stories and appear together rarely, it loses steam. Johnson, an actor in his own right, and very good in the recent film Anne at 13,000 Feet, delivers an excellent supporting performance here. He is protective of Lazaridis in the early going, but does well in portraying Fregin’s disappointment as Research In Motion becomes just another corporate entity in the late stages. Rubinek, Elwes, and Michael Ironside (as Research in Motion’s stern COO) have smaller supporting roles, but it’s always a joy to see them in a film.
Johnson and co-writer Matthew Miller’s script, based on the book Losing the Signal by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, tells the story well enough, but often feels like a standard biopic. Johnson’s two earlier films, The Dirties and Operation Avalanche, are fast and loose found footage movies, and it would have been interesting to see some of that looseness in play here. Similarly, the direction, style and look of the film feel too staid. They don’t detract from the film, but they never rise above a TV-movie level. Given the strength of the acting, a little more panache behind the camera could have made BlackBerry something special. Instead, it’s a solid little film that’s worth a watch for its performances, especially those of Howerton and Baruchel.
BlackBerry opens in theaters Friday, May 12th.