We’ve recently entered a new world of cinema in which product placement is the entire rationale for a movie. No longer is it sufficient for a character to swig a wellknown softdrink or flash an expensive watch – now the softdrink or the watch are the heroes of the film. We learn about their inventors’ poor but honest backstories, thrill to their idealistic ambitions, feel their pain when something goes wrong, and bask in their inevitable corporate triumph.
Who would have imagined consumer goods could inspire such depths of emotion? It’s time for a cautionary tale.
After the product romance comes the product tragedy. While Barbie is boosting Mattel’s sales figures, and Air made everybody feel warm and fuzzy about Nike’s best-selling sports shoe, for the BlackBerry it’s all too late. As the credits roll in Matt Johnson’s corporate rags-to-riches-to-rags saga, we learn the company once held almost 50 percent of the global market for the mobile phone. Today they have zero.
The lead characters in the BlackBerry story are a bunch of Canadian computer nerds with a start-up tech outfit called, believe it or not, RIM, which stands for Research In Motion. Given the eventual fate of this enterprise it’s only appropriate that the setting is Waterloo, Ontario. The story begins one day in 1996, as the CEO and chief nerd, Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), and his best friend, Doug Fregin (director, Matt Johnson), make a play for the Worst Sales Pitch of All Time with a distracted executive from a larger, more professional outfit.
Little do they know that the executive, Jim Balsilie (Glenn Howerton), is being eaten up with ambition and envy in his quest to move up the ladder. He barely pays attention to Mike and Doug, as he is too busy plotting to double cross a colleague, and his own boss. By the end of the day Jim is unemployed, and ready to renew acquaintance with the nerds, if he can bully them into letting him take over their company.
That company is more like a teenage boys’ domitory, where the guys play computer games all day, watch movies, horse around, and somehow manage to do some work. Doug, in a perpetual hippy headband, is the ringleader, Mike the introverted genius that lets the chaos swirl around him.
All this will change when Jim comes on board, forcing the guys to turn their half-baked good idea about a phone with an email connection into a functional product. Despite a series of catastrophic mishaps, it turns out the product works, and BlackBerry – named spontaneously after a stain on Mike’s shirt – is born.
As we leap from year to year, the company’s fortunes soar. The team faces down a hostile takeover from a much bigger company, with the help of some tricky hirings and stock manoeuvres. They sell millions of units and become a world leader. Mike loses the glasses, gets a black suit and quiff, and becomes a nerd with megalomaniac tendencies. Doug remains exactly the same, occasionally pairing his headband with a tie. Jim brings in a headkicker to keep staff focused on the job.
Suddenly, it’s 2007, and Steve Jobs is spruiking a new product called the iPhone. For BlackBerry the apocalypse has begun. The tiny keyboard that was the BlackBerry’s greatest asset has become a liability alongside the iPhone’s chic full screen.
I’m obliged to describe BlackBerry as a comedy, but it’s the kind that finds viewers snickering through clenched teeth. Jim is both appalling and compulsively watchable as a ruthless, self-centred corporate psychopath, sitting in an office packed with tribal masks. The business world we meet in the film is a dark, dirty pool full of sharks and pirates. Whichever way a small player turns he’s likely to be mangled or robbed.
As most people are familiar with BlackBerry’s rise and fall (any reader over 40 may have owned one!), we spend much of the film waiting for the inevitable crash. We know what’s going to happen, but we need to know howit happens, as if we were watching the footage of a fatal accident.
Emulating the amateurish nature of RIM, the film has a handmade feel, with grainy image quality and more handheld camera than the average home movie. I can’t say whether this represents an artistic choice or a strained budget. It imparts a nervy feel to proceedings some may find distracting.
Although the cinematographer might fail a breathalyser test, the dialogue and acting are excellent. In his mumbling, awkward way, Mike produces some remarkable one-liners. The star performance comes from Glenn Howerton, whose angry unlovable, foul-mouthed Jim, is the driver for BlackBerry’s success and failure.
As the film progresses, one can’t help but notice what a relentlessly male affair it is. If any of the lead characters have wives or girlfriends, we never get to meet them. Virtually the only female characters with speaking parts are Jim’s secretary, Shelly, and an investigator from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
This omission is too pointed to be accidental. Johnson wants to emphasise the blokey, boy’s club world these characters inhabit, whether they spend their time watching Raiders of the Lost Ark with the guys, like Doug, or sizing up a private box at the hockey, like Jim.
We gradually realise that Mike, Jim and Doug are engaged in a murderous menage-a-trois. Mike needs Jim’s business expertise, while Jim is equally reliant on Mike’s tech genius. Doug is the guy that keeps Mike tethered to humanity, while Jim draws him ever deeper into corporate madness. Jim consistently underestimates Doug, who can see where ambition tumbles over into hubris. Suits take note: don’t write off an annoying dude in a headband, it might be McEnroe.
Directed by Matt Johnson
Written by Matt Johnson & Matthew Miller after the book, ‘Losing the Signal’ by Jacquie McNish & Sean Silcoff
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Rich Sommer, SungWon Cho, Michael Ironside, Cary Elwes, Martin Donovan, Laura Cilevitz
Canada, M, 121 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 26 August, 2023