Monday, May 08, 2023

BlackBerry: The Rise and Fall Story, Co-Starring Michael Ironside

Before iPhones and Androids, it was the handheld addiction of choice. They were pseudo-affectionately called “CrackBerries.” The company that manufactured them rode their market-share to great heights, but it eventually crashed hard. And yes, they can partially blame China. The semi-lightly-fictionalized true story of Research in Motion and its once-popular product unfold in Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry, somewhat adapted from Jacqie McNish & Sean Silcoff’s Losing the Signal, which opens Friday in theaters.

Mike Lazaridis was the tech guy who could figure things out. Jim Balsillie was the business guy who could get things done. Doug Fregin was the fun guy everyone else really enjoyed working for. Initially, Balsillie had no interest in Lazaridis’s pitch, but when his sharp elbows got him fired, he bought into Research in Motion, thinking he could right the aimless Canadian start-up’s ship.

Unfortunately, the company is in even worse shape than Balsillie expected, but Lazaridis has a potentially game-changing device on the drawing board. Of course, he is reluctant to pitch anything that is not absolutely perfect, but Balsillie is sure Lazaridis can deliver whatever he has to promise. The fact is they really do not have any choice, which Lazaridis grudgingly acknowledges. Fregin, on the other hand, is shocked when his old friend refuses to push back against the sharky Balsillie’s demands.

Of course, that product was the BlackBerry, which a lot of former users still remember with fond nostalgia. For a while, the company could not lose, until they suddenly lost big. Johnson and co-screenwriter-producer Matthew Miller efficiently compress the company’s history into a highly compellingly drama, while sort-or maintaining the quasi-verite style of Johnson’s previous features,
The Dirties and the underwhelming Operation Avalanche. At times, it resembles an episode of The Office, but the stakes are higher—and everything we see on-screen, most definitely including the performances, are much more realistic.

Jay Baruchel portrays Lazaridis as a twitchy bundle of neuroses, but his performance is never cartoony or lazily shticky. As Balsillie, Glenn Howerton rivals Michael Douglas in
Wall Street and Alec Baldwin in Glengerry Glen Ross. When he roars and rages, people better listen, including the audience. Johnson himself is probably the weakest link playing Fregin, whose goofy behavior is so abrasively unprofessional, it pushes viewers to identify with Balsillie.

However, the film gets a huge energy boost from the great Michael Ironside as back-breaking (or a less polite term) COO Charles Purdy. Ironside also had a small but significant role in Hulu’s
The Dropout—if you enjoyed its depiction of Elizabeth Holmes’ fall from grace, you should also dig BlackBerry. Plus, reliable character actor Saul Rubinek makes the most of his appearances as Woodman, a Verizon executive.

Johnson and Miller identify several contributors to the company’s decline. Obviously, the iPhone was one of them. The case history they assemble probably places the most blame on internal corporate dysfunction, but it is worth noting Lazaridis’s reluctant decision to shift manufacturing to China was an unmitigated disaster.

Frankly, there is a lot to learn from the Research in Motion story. There are worse things that could end up in an MBA curriculum than this film. Yet, the concrete management details never undermine the entertainment of the drama. As a result, this is easily Johnson’s best film to date. Highly recommended,
BlackBerry opens this Friday (5/12) in New York at the IFC Center and in LA at the Laemmle NoHo 7 and Town Center 5.