GFF 2023: Blackberry Film Review

Canadian auteur Matt Johnson's irreverent comedy charts the rise and fall of the former tech giant behind the world's first smartphone.

Matt Johnson’s hilarious and irreverent comedy Blackberry charts the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of the titular device, the world’s first smartphone. The film follows Canadian tech nerds Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson) as they attempt to get their innovative new mobile phone off the ground. Pitching a phone that can handle emails, text messaging and internet in one device, Mike and Doug have a great product on their hands but no idea how to sell it. Enter Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a cunning corporate shark whose ruthless business mind is in stark contrast to Mike’s nerdy nature and Doug’s dopey demeanor.

Balsillie ultimately comes on board to handle the business side of things, getting Mike’s product in front of some top decision makers while also transforming the culture of the company. As the film begins, RIM – the company behind the Blackberry – is a group of friends in a dingy office playing Doom and hosting movie nights. Once Balsillie gets his hands on it and the money starts rolling in, the transition to a Canadian tech giant is underway. Sporting a bald head and permanent scowl, Howerton’s bullish performance is a highlight, a comedic tour de force full of simmering resentment and explosive rage.

Johnson’s idiosyncratic style and offbeat comic timing differentiates Blackberry from other modern tech epics like The Social Network or Steve Jobs. The Canadian multi-hyphenate couldn’t be further from David Fincher or Danny Boyle, but his ramshackle multi-cam set-up and freewheeling style gives the film an unpredictable, chaotic edge that keeps it engaging and helps it rise above the tropes of the particular subgenre.

As with most films that chart the rise and fall of a person or company, the first half is inevitably more fun than the second. In the case of Blackberry, the film’s later stages miss Howerton’s presence as Balsillie becomes a more marginal figure in the running of the company. It is nonetheless a fascinating and often genuinely hilarious look at a product that has become something of a punchline in recent years, but whose influence on our society is undeniable. Despite its offbeat comedic approach, Johnson’s film never loses respect and reverence for the work that Mike, Doug, and their team did.  Blackberry captures the spirit of a time when technology was rapidly advancing and shines a light on a lesser-known story from our recent technological past.

Blackberry screened as part of the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival.