Jay Baruchel & Glenn Howerton in Smartphone Saga – The Hollywood Reporter

It seems like a lifetime ago that the millions of us who spent the early 2000s thumbing away on our BlackBerry smartphones swore those beloved devices would have to be torn from our cold, dead hands before we’d surrender them. The very idea of a cellphone without a trackpad or keyboard seemed like heresy, and for many of us, our introduction to iPhones or other suspiciously sleek Android models was a traumatic transition, making our fingers feel like those clumsy hot dog hands in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Resistance was so strong that even in 2010, three years after the first iPhone launch, BlackBerry still led the global smartphone market with 43 percent. But times change, previously indispensable tech tools get shoved to the back of a desk drawer and shiny touch-screen communication devices now make their hardware-heavy predecessors seem as primitive as wheezing dial-up modems.


The Bottom Line

Uneven but likable.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Rich Sommer, Michael Ironside, Martin Donovan, Michelle Giroux, Sungwon Cho, Mark Critch, Saul Rubinek, Cary Elwes
Director: Matt Johnson
Screenwriters: Matt Johnson, Matthew Miller, based on the book, Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff

2 hours 2 minutes

Matt Johnson’s uneven but reasonably entertaining BlackBerry tells the tale of that once-revolutionary invention out of Waterloo, Ontario, and the band of uber-nerd techies at Research in Motion (RIM) who made it happen. This required an alliance with a business-minded shark who was busy manipulating company stocks while the cellphone wars were hastening the device’s obsolescence. It’s an affectionately told story of Canadian innovation, loss of innocence and of unlikely bedfellows making entrepreneurial magic.

Those two chief driving forces are co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), the former a guileless brainiac and the latter a cunning operator who somehow saw a goldmine in one of the most stunningly inept investor presentations ever depicted onscreen.

Johnson’s movie is a bit like those two characters — a slightly goofy, stranger-than-fiction workplace comedy that doesn’t always mesh seamlessly with the downfall thriller into which it evolves. Nor is Balsillie’s wheeler-dealer chicanery to circumvent a hostile takeover attempt always as lucid as it could be, which causes a loss of momentum.

But even if it never flies quite high enough, the film’s scrappiness somehow befits the birth of a gadget that changed the way we work, play and communicate. That goes especially for the original crew of tech developers working with Lazaridis, a bunch of schlubby gamers and movie geeks, champion procrastinators led by affable dork Douglas Fregin (Johnson). When ruthless Jim loses patience with Doug’s shambolic management style, he suggests cutting the RIM co-founder loose. But Mike’s reply lets him know that would be unthinkable: “He’s my best friend.”

The interactions between straight-talking, foul-mouthed Jim, with his grounding in cutthroat corporate culture, and the Doug crew, whose work ethic comes a distant second to their enthusiasm for movie nights and idle web-surfing, provides some of BlackBerry’s most amusing scenes. Just the contrast between impeccably groomed Jim’s sharply cut suits and Doug’s man-child uniform of shapeless nerd tees and sweatbands is a visual gag in itself.

There’s also an appealing quasi-buddy element in the gradual shift from Mike and Jim regarding each other as different species to them learning to work together toward a common goal. One nice moment, for instance, involves a hastily prepared prototype presentation to the board of a wireless provider in New York, where they see through Jim’s slick but empty sales pitch until diffident electronics genius Mike’s tech savvy saves his ass.

A quick cut from there to an Oprah clip in which Winfrey bellows her amazement about the newfangled multitasking device to an excitable studio audience represents the ultimate breakthrough in consumer acceptance.

Where the script by Johnson and producing partner Matthew Miller (based on Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book Losing the Signal) starts falling down is in its reluctance to milk that moment and let us share the high. They undersell the hallelujah revelation of a gizmo that ended the era of pagers, data-deprived flip phones and calendar devices with styluses virtually designed to be lost. The popular term “Crackberry” is mentioned once, but there’s too little made of the extent to which the BlackBerry kickstarted a global addiction, making smartphones a necessary tool for basic social functioning.   

Instead, the writers skip straight ahead to the realization that the company, despite its success, is vulnerable to corporate predators, once personal digital assistant manufacturer Palm swoops in. Cary Elwes has fun dialing up the smug bravado as Palm CEO Carl Yankowski, who may also have had a hand in sabotaging an early $16 million deal Lazaridis and Fregin had made to supply modems to U.S. Robotics. But the storytelling grows haphazard as Balsillie embarks on a shady quest to thwart Yankowski’s plan, undermining RIM’s stability in the process.

To be effective, a high-stakes corporate thriller requires mounting conflict, razor-sharp plotting and teeth, qualities that are not Johnson’s strong points. So the film meanders along instead of injecting suspense into the descent, as company strategy gets wobbly, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission begins sniffing around and new competitors in the marketplace up the pressure. Even the bellwether of doom represented by Steve Jobs’ historic first unveiling of the iPhone, shrouded in secrecy throughout its development, is undersold as a narrative turning point.

What keeps you watching is the enjoyable character work of the two leads. Howerton makes Jim laser-focused, shrewd and loyal only to himself, as quick and precise in his body language as he is with his blunt words. The movie’s heart comes from Baruchel, who finds a muted sadness in Mike’s increasing pragmatism and decisiveness. However, he shows regret as he’s forced to acknowledge that the cohorts with whom he started his adventures in tech are not exactly an asset.

Pacing could be more consistent, but regular Johnson collaborator Jay McCarrol’s synth score gooses the energy and fits the subject matter, complemented by some choice needle drops from Joy Division, The Strokes, Moby and The White Stripes. The cleverest of them is The Kinks’ classic, “Waterloo Sunset,” deftly repurposed as a dream of melancholy nostalgia for another Waterloo, across the Atlantic.

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