‘BlackBerry’: Riveting Biopic Charts the Rise and Fall of the First Smartphone

Soft-spoken tech nerds and a brazen, abrasive business bro make a winning team, at least for a little while, in “BlackBerry,” a dramedy inspired by the true story of the rise and fall of the Canadian company behind “that phone you had before you bought an iPhone.” Canadian treasure Jay Baruchel stars as Mike Lazaridis, the visionary who created the BlackBerry along with his partner, Douglas Fregin (Matt Johnson, also the director and co-writer). After some “pirates” in the form of a major U.S. company renege on their end of a major deal, they bring in Jim Balsille (Glenn Howerton in top form), a “shark,” to serve as co-CEO with Mike and take care of the business side of the company. What starts off as a winning combination turns into something else after Jim’s hubris, pressures to grow too fast, and fierce competition from Apple lead to the inevitable beginning of the end.

“BlackBerry” is not just a fascinating film about the worlds of business and tech, but it is also a compelling outsider story, as BlackBerry, originally called Research in Motion, is based not in Silicon Valley, but in Waterloo, Ontario. Neither Mike nor Doug have the pizazz of Steve Jobs, but after an awkward first meeting in 1996, Jim sees the potential in their phone that sends emails, and ends up mortgaging his own house to finance the company. After winning a major contract with Verizon, BlackBerry takes off, and the phone itself becomes a status symbol. However, by 2003, the company has some stiff competition, and after Carl Yankowski (Cary Elwes), the head of PalmPilot, threatens a hostile takeover if they do not agree to a merger, Jim takes drastic action. He rapidly expands the company, bringing in some of the top engineers in the world, including Google’s head of physical engineering, Paul Stanno (Rich Sommer). He lures these people in with 10 million a pop in the form of stocks, and it is only so long before the government catches a whiff of what is happening.

Howerton’s Jim, who is as if his “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” character Dennis Reynolds went to Harvard Business School, plays well nicely off of Baruchel and Johnson’s characters, who both fit the stereotype of the nice Canadian. Jim, obviously, defies this stereotype, and no matter how much wealth he acquires, his bank account can never catch up with his ego, and things reach a boiling point around the time he pisses off the NHL. While he rubs off somewhat on Mike, purer Doug takes issue with some of his decisions, especially after he brings in a new blowhard CEO (Michael Ironside). While one can see why running a tight ship can be appealing to someone like Jim, the film makes the argument that putting the kind of pressure he does on employees stifles creativity and innovation.

In the end, as the launch of the dreaded iPhone approaches, Baruchel breaks the viewer’s heart as he comes to realize his war with Jobs will end before it even really starts. Howerton also delivers an outstanding performance as Jim realizes he has flown too close to the sun. The final act will almost make the viewer feel sorry for trading their BlackBerry in for an iPhone all those years ago.

BlackBerry” releases May 12 in theaters nationwide.