' ' Cinema Romantico: BlackBerry

Monday, June 12, 2023


“BlackBerry” begins with monochrome archival footage of Arthur C. Clarke famously predicting a city-less future, foretelling that “Men will no longer commute – they will communicate.” In other words, this Canadian kinda dramedy directed by Matt Johnson and written by Johnson and Matthew Miller adapted from a non-fiction book by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, begins by talking about the future even as it returns to the past, which ultimately becomes an apt metaphor for the movie itself. Not just because it chronicles the rise and fall of its eponymous device, a pager that receives email, a computer in your pocket, the thing, as one character eventually puts it when the writing on the wall becomes clear, that everyone had before an iPhone, but because that rise and fall, a kind of capitalistic Icarus complex, is as old as time. And rather than examine the technological, even societal, possibilities the BlackBerry suggests, “BlackBerry” sharpens its focus to nothing but the business plan, a limited scope that is as successful in so far as it goes which is pretty damn far.

The BlackBerry is devised by a Canadian company called Research in Motion that in its tiny nerd culture comes across more like Semi-Operational Romper Room, its anti-social CEO Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel, playing a turtle never sure it wants to emerge from its shell) and his headband-sporting Michael Bolton-ish (the other one) partner Douglas Fregin (Matthew Johnson, impressively never playing the part as likable as you would think) barely equipped to make a standard business pitch, which they do in an early scene to balding, ferocious Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) who dismisses them without hardly looking at them. But when Jim takes his own business pitch too far, getting himself fired in the process, he convinces Mike and Doug to let him take command of Research in Motion, suggesting Alec Baldwin of “Glengarry Glen Ross” running a Star Trek convention. Astutely, Doug deems Jim a shark, and he is, all forward momentum, as is “BlackBerry” itself, essentially divided into three parts, the meteoric rise into something huge, the insistence on becoming huger, and then too huge, innately repurposing Gordon Gekko’s Greed is Good mantra as Growth is Good until there’s no room left to grow. 

There are moments when Jim, both in the character as written and in Howerton’s performance, suggests the political operative Malcolm Tucker of “In the Loop.” Not just in the unrelenting profanity and general indifference to compassion, but in moments of impending dramatic shifts where you can see a split-second decision pass over Howerton’s face like a storm cloud and then give way to instant action, immediacy being more crucial than whether the character is right or wrong. That Malcolm Tucker corollary is enhanced by the movie’s visual approach, a handheld docudrama sensation infusing “BlackBerry” with the feeling of satire. At one point, in heated orders from the company’s new taskmaster CFO (a perfectly cast Michael Ironside), the camera zooms in on the lone woman in the room, cluing you into how few women there are in this environment and deliberately prodding you to laugh, mocking the world in which it is immersed.

As “BlackBerry” moves toward its conclusion, it becomes clear in the way relationships play out as the SEC closes in that Johnson is aiming for a kind of wistfulness a la “The Social Network.” The latter, though, injected its narrative with human dimension whereas as the herky jerky handheld close-ups dominating “BlackBerry” put into perspective its pointedly limited, office-only scope. Mike’s tactile nature and Doug’s insistence on a work/life balance are intriguing ideas that remain on the periphery, the business of the BlackBerry brought wholly to the fore. It’s not simply that we know how it all ends, but that absent fully rounded out characters, there is an inertia to the brewing calamity, and the final third feels less like tragic overreach than merely following the script to its logical end point. But then, what it lacks in tragedy, it makes up for in all-out capitalist ruthlessness, brought home by Howerton in his final scene, the one where his two-hour tempest finally relents, cracking a knowing smile. A shark “has to constantly move forward or it dies,” Alvy Singer once observed, and in this moment, Howerton turns Jim Balsillie into “a dead shark.”

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