As the passing parade rushes by there is a danger of forgetting events of the recent past. To his credit, Canadian actor and filmmaker Matt Johnson has dramatized the rise and fall of a hand-held device that was a game-changer in the world of communications, and precious to many people I know: the BlackBerry.
This is not just another cautionary tale of nerds made good and greed turned sour. It’s a particular tale of one geeky genius, Mike Laziridis (Jay Baruchel), his partner and pal Doug Fregin (played by director and co-writer Johnson), and a fiercely ambitious businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) who steps into their frat-boy world and launches them into the Big Time, beginning in 1996, bending the rules as he goes along.
Adopting a scorched-earth policy is the last thing on the minds of the BlackBerry’s creators. Laziridis has an almost fetishy contempt for any products made in China and thinks that “good enough” is unacceptable. His sidekick and partner urges him not to go along with Balsillie, whose steamroller approach to negotiations pays off more than once.
As the take-charge business brain, Howerton delivers a searing performance that never strains credulity, in spite of his character’s often-outrageous behavior. Baruchel is very good, too, but the filmmakers’ attempt to age him in the final portion of the story is ineffectual. That’s where this can-do movie reveals its budgetary shortfall.
The supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces; veterans like Saul Rubinek, Cary Elwes, and Michael Ironside and younger pros like Rich Sommer and Martin Donovan. They all contribute to the impact of this true-to-life tale. Johnson is still a relative newcomer as a writer and director but he is one of the movie’s MVPs onscreen. In real life he teaches alongside his screenwriting partner Matthew Miller at York University. They were fortunate in securing the rights to a book called Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry that provided them with a detailed blueprint. Truth remains stranger than fiction and BlackBerry makes the case all over again.
But, oddly enough, it does not answer a key question: where did the name for the device come from? Perhaps we’ll have to wait for a sequel to find out.