There’s a lot to be said for the retrospective gaze, which can tinge even the most horrific of times with a protective glaze of nostalgia. How else could the men of Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry come off as quaint?
Couple that with the right location, and you can work all sorts of wonders. The tech nerds who built the world’s first smartphone and forever changed the way humans communicate hailed from Waterloo, Canada, and weren’t anything approaching visionaries, at least not as Johnson tells it in his docudrama-style fantasia.
Nerd culture has ruled us all for so long that even those of us who actually lived it may be hard-pressed to remember a time when embracing technology and comic books as a passion had severe social consequences that often came to a head most infamously in gym class (and beyond). But Johnson clearly remembers, and when BlackBerry opens in 1996, it’s laced with memories of a time when the now romanticized image of tech-savvy geeks tinkering in a room was cause for disdain.
Ice For Sale
The revolution light years beyond televised could hardly be fathomed in the 90’s, so while it’s nearly incomprehensible from our current moment how Research in Motion CEO Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his fellow creator and bff Doug (Johnson) weren’t taken seriously at a meeting where they pitch their titular creation, we know they’re about to have the next laugh, if not the last one. Yet it’s a twist of fate rather than good marketing that gives them their big break, with shady businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) coming to their kinda rescue only after he’s fired from his job and latches onto them out of desperation.
Like many a tale of a meteoric rise and ignominious fall, the seeds of what to come are there from the start. This is a system which openly prides itself on how it feasts upon many of its most brilliant minds, and the CEOs and employees of Research In Motion never had a glimmer of business savvy. They also had a sense of decency which included high standards and moral objections to Chinese imports, with Mike believing in all sincerity as he proclaims “Good enough is the enemy of humanity.”
In other words, it’s very likely that the system was going to eat them alive eventually, and that it took so long to do it was mostly due to the brilliance of RIM’s employees and Balsillie forcibly whipping them into shape – after he’d installed himself as co-CEO of course. Both assets saved them until they didn’t, as an idiotic world which thrived on idiocy itself savaged them at the first sign of weakness. Once the iPhone makes an appearance, all the machismo and hustle in the world can’t cover for their inability to adapt.
Revenge of the Nerds
That we sympathize with all of these men is due to Johnson and co-writer Matthew Miller’s screenplay, which is so hilariously razor sharp it hardly seems like a cop-out for Johnson to cast himself as the movie’s moral authority Doug. As the socially awkward and likely on the spectrum Mike goes from a hands-on approach which includes tinkering with the products alongside his engineers to a slicked-back hairdo and Jim’s profit-focused philosophy, it’s Doug who argues against each step that deprives their employees of much of the joy found in the room where it all happens.
With such character-focused work that includes nearly unrecognizable turns from Baruchel and Howerton, who’s channeling a very different species of sleaze from his most well-known role as the predatory Dennis on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it’s not large sums of money which comprise the film’s biggest emotional beats, but shared moments of discovery. There’s an element of awe, even magic, when someone uses a primitive Blackberry prototype for the first time, and the turning point in Mike’s eventual downfall is the loss of the engineers’ movie nights.
It’s a very Canadian approach to a world that now seems more and more like it’s attempting to eat its own tail and us with it, at least judging from a glance at the Elon Musk era of Twitter. As Johnson would have it, even the sharks are aware of and exploit the ridiculousness of toxic masculinity to the point that they plant the most obnoxious caricatures possible right in the middle of the moneyed watering holes to promote their product.
True, the movie won’t bother to get into how the name Blackberry was chosen, but it keeps up the breakneck pace and wrings so many laughs from a familiar story in a time so glutted with technological cautionary tales it hardly seems to matter.
Rating: 9/10 SPECS
Blackberry plays in theaters May 12, 2023.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.
She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.