‘BlackBerry’ Review: Big Dreams, Little Keyboards

The struggle to sell a revolutionary gizmo fractures a friendship in this lively, bittersweet comedy.

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By Jeannette Catsoulis

In Matt Johnson’s “BlackBerry” — a wonky workplace comedy that slowly shades into tragedy — the emergence of the smartphone isn’t greeted with fizzing fireworks and popping champagne corks. Instead, Johnson and his co-writer, Matthew Miller (adapting Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s 2015 book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry”), have fashioned a tale of scrabbling toward success that tempers its humor with an oddly moving wistfulness.

That blend of patter and pathos was also evident in Johnson’s previous feature, “Operation Avalanche” (2016), as was an intrepid filming style that effortlessly conjures the rush of innovation. This time, we’re in Waterloo, Ontario, in 1996, where Mike Lazaridis (a perfect Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Johnson) — best friends and co-founders of a small tech company called Research in Motion (RIM) — are trying to sell a product they call PocketLink, a revolutionary combination of cellphone, email device and pager. While waiting to pitch a roomful of suits, Mike is distracted by an annoyingly buzzing intercom. Grabbing a paper clip, he quickly fixes it, noting that it was made in China. Disgust flits across his face, an expression we will remember when, much later, mounting problems force him to embrace a manufacturing option he despises.

Clever callbacks like this allow “BlackBerry” to hauntingly connect the story’s downward slide with the innocence and optimism of its early scenes. The corporate types don’t understand Mike and Doug’s invention, but a predatory salesman named Jim Balsillie (a fantastic Glenn Howerton), gets it. Recently fired and fired up, Jim sees the device’s potential, making a deal to acquire part of RIM in exchange for cash and expertise. Doug, a man-child invariably accessorized with a headband and a bewildered look, is doubtful; Mike, assisted by a shock of prematurely gray hair, is wiser. He knows that they’ll need an intermediary to succeed.

Reveling in a vibe — hopeful, testy, undisciplined — that’s an ideal match for its subject, “BlackBerry” finds much of its humor in Jim’s resolve to fashion productive employees from RIM’s ebulliently geeky staff, who look and act like middle schoolers and converse in a hybrid of tech-speak and movie quotes. It’s all Vogon poetry to Jim; but as Jared Raab’s restless camera careens around the chaotic work space, the excitement of disruption and the thrill of creation become tangible. It helps that the director is more than familiar with the feel of a friend-filled workplace: It’s how he’s been making movies since his first feature, “The Dirties,” in 2013.

Fortified with strong actors in small roles — Michael Ironside as a pit bull C.O.O., Martin Donovan as the boss who sees the peril in Jim’s ruthlessness — “BlackBerry” remains grounded when the money rolls in and übergeeks from Google are enticed by multimillion-dollar offers. Some of the financial machinations, like Jim’s frantic attempts to fend off a hostile takeover by Palm Pilot, are less than clear; but “BlackBerry” isn’t just the story of a life-altering gadget. Long before that gadget’s death knell sounds in the unveiling of the iPhone, Jim has so thoroughly insinuated himself between the two friends that an image of a forgotten Doug, gazing down from a window as Jim and Mike head off to a meeting, is almost heartbreaking.

More than anything, perhaps, “BlackBerry” highlights the vulnerability and exploitability of creatives in a cutthroat marketplace. The push-pull between genius and business, and their mutual dependence (brilliantly articulated during Jim and Mike’s sales pitch to a wireless provider), is the movie’s real subject and the wellspring of its persistent yearning tone. “When you grow up, your heart dies,” Doug says at one point, quoting “The Breakfast Club.” The sad sweetness of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” played over the end credits, is just the cherry on top.

“The person who puts a computer inside a phone will change the world,” a shop teacher once told Mike. He was right; and if “BlackBerry” has a flaw, it’s perhaps in neglecting to trumpet the momentousness of that change, one that has made it seem we will all be typing with our thumbs forever.

Rated R for “Glengarry Glen Ross” language and “Silicon Valley” fashion. Running time: 2 hour 2 minutes. In theaters.

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