Sunday 8 October 2023

The losers: "BlackBerry"


The latest feature to have been torn from the financial pages, 
BlackBerry, has a welcome USP: it's funny, then tragicomic. The eponymous product at its centre - the short-lived telecommunications device that offered the then-revolutionary combo of phone plus computer keyboard - was but a mere stepping stone, as it turned out; we're not meant to go starry-eyed over it, as I think we were over Facebook or the Air Jordan trainer or Tetris in films of a comparable ilk. It may also be significant that this was a Canadian rather than American innovation, and thus more amenable to gentle mockery. The director here is the Toronto native Matt Johnson, whose The Dirties (on the planning of a high-school shooting) and Operation Avalanche (reworking the urban myth about NASA faking the moon landing) were sly 21st century updates of the men-on-a-mission movie. He continues that project here, shooting fast and loose, with lots of shakycam peeping at schlubby tech bros through the slats in wonky office blinds. Collectively, this footage illustrates the unlikely and finally doomed alliance between two dorky manchildren and the one grown-up in the room. On the side of youth: nervy fiddler Mike Lazarides (Jay Baruchel) and his partner Doug Fregin (Johnson himself, looking more like a Doug than anyone has ever managed on screen), brains behind the none too professional start-up Research in Motion. (A business card underlines the unfortunate acronym.) Providing the money and corporate steel: Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), the angel investor turned CEO who found himself serving as besuited babysitter, arrived at an exasperated tolerance for his charges - doubtless helped by the vast sums BlackBerry was generating at its peak - before looking on helplessly as Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone that made their own product obsolete overnight, the movie's ultimate punchline. A bigger boy made Mike and Doug do it, and it still all came to naught.

This is by any index Johnson's biggest film to date: it features recognisable names and faces rather than the director's friends, and the kind of logos and needledrops for which any director typically has to pay top dollar. Yet the funniest thing about it may just be that, despite its presence in our more adventurous multiplexes, BlackBerry remains resolutely small of scale and independent of spirit: watching odd little men shuttle around nondescript backstreets in notably shitty cars, it finally has more in common with a mumblecore curio like Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess than the state-of-the-art flash of The Social Network. Johnson and his co-writers see very little that counts as aspirational in this story, and even less that might be mistaken for inspirational. Mike and Doug cobbled together something that was considered useful for a while; it was then overtaken and outsold. That, the movie concludes, is just how business goes sometimes. Having nothing to sell us on allows Johnson to maintain a rewardingly close focus on his performers. Baruchel is pretty good as a born tinkerer possessed of the urge to get things right - hence his film-long obsession with quelling the white noise emitting from Balsillie's faulty intercom - but also what in modern business circles is likely considered a tragic flaw: a need to do things perfectly, rather than successfully. Johnson's Doug is all too clearly along for the ride, and defined chiefly by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wallet he produces to pay for one early business meeting. Still, his T-shirts conspire to tell their own story of limited ambition, and he clears room for Howerton, superb as an arsehole who's also the kick up the arse Mike and Doug need if they're ever going to compete in the big leagues.

Granted, much as most recent Steve Coogan characters have in some way been Partridge-adjacent, there's an element of Dennis Reynolds, the hilariously sociopathic, Andrew Tate-predating character Howerton has made totemic in his small-screen work, about this performance. (Balsillie's "thirst is a display of weakness", offered as terse rationalisation for refusing a secretary's benign offer of water, is somehow very Dennis.) Yet this bald-headed eagle of finance remains the one and only person on screen who seems to know how to get things done at all: aggressively, unethically, if needs be - and with no consideration greater than that of selling yourself - but again, Johnson shrugs, that's business for you. The film may be at its most Canadian around Balsillie, with his very Canadian, literally part-silly name: everyone associated with BlackBerry the company and BlackBerry the film looks to have gone on the record to assert that the character of Jim Balsillie as so entertainingly portrayed by Howerton owes scant resemblance to lived reality - but eh, no harm, no foul, and no expensive litigation. Unlike Wall Street or its bastard son The Wolf of Wall Street, this is a film about business where no-one comes away looking especially cool; even the supporting artists, whose expressions, haircuts and wardrobes prove reliably good for passing chuckles, look more like spare or remaindered parts than slumming pin-ups. If it's true that you learn more from failure than success, then Johnson's film also demonstrates it's possible to have far more fun with the process leading us to fail: BlackBerry has the feel of a footnote very precisely, even lovingly inhabited and described.

BlackBerry is now playing in selected cinemas.

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