Short-lived revenge of the nerds

Tale of the device that dominated pre-iPhone era is enjoyably seething, dorky and wryly comic


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It’s been a year for hero-entrepreneur movies.

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It’s been a year for hero-entrepreneur movies.

Air somehow positioned the Nike corporation as a scrappy underdog in the race for a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal. (Um, yay?) Tetris followed the quest to get an addictive game out from behind the Iron Curtain and into the global market, making it into a Cold War thriller. Flamin’ Hot turned the marketing of spicy Cheetos into a feel-good motivational story.

In this sardonically funny but surprisingly sweet rise-and-fall tech saga, Toronto filmmaker Matt Johnson gives the genre a distinctly Canadian spin.

It’s not just the setting, which starts out at a 1990s Waterloo, Ont., strip mall right near the Shoppers Drug Mart. It’s not just the cast, which includes Saul Rubinek, Michael Ironside and Mark Critch alongside star Jay Baruchel.

Maybe the most quintessential Canadian quality here is the story, which is ultimately more interested in failure than success. Charting the crazy, up-down, true-life trajectory of Canuck company Research In Motion, BlackBerry is more a tragicomic tale of lost geek innocence than a celebration of the can-do capitalist spirit.

Riffing on Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s non-fiction book Losing the Signal, Johnson — who directs and co-scripts with Matthew Miller and McNish — introduces us to a small tech startup run by two smart, socially awkward dorks.

Doug Fregin (played by Johnson), in a perpetual headband and a rotating selection of cult movie T-shirts, supplies the goofball enthusiasm. Mike Laziridis (Knocked Up’s Baruchel) is a sunken-shouldered introvert so bothered by bad engineering he’s driven to fix an intercom in the office of a complete stranger before a meeting starts. Mike has taken out a bank loan to float the company.

In a world where everyone is still tethered to their desktop computers, Mike and Doug are working on a prototype for what they call the Pocket Link, a mobile phone that’s also a computer.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see this is a universe-changing idea, but Mike and Doug are so hilariously unsuited to making corporate pitches they are struggling to get it across.

Enter Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Jim is diabolically good at making corporate pitches, and he buys in to become co-CEO with Mike.

He’s all about alpha-male power moves and smooth tricks for dominating the room. When he and Mike are offered coffee before a meeting at Verizon, he hisses at Mike, “Never accept the drink. Thirst is a display of weakness.”

<p>IFC Films</p>
                                <p>Glenn Howerton plays BlackBerry’s Jim Balsillie with genuine menace while also mining his shouty, super-intense corporate killer for laughs.</p>

IFC Films

Glenn Howerton plays BlackBerry’s Jim Balsillie with genuine menace while also mining his shouty, super-intense corporate killer for laughs.

Not surprisingly, the power-sharing arrangement between the mismatched men soon becomes a clash of management styles. Mike and Doug have always tended toward benevolent babysitting. Their old solution to getting bad business news was to organize an “emergency movie night,” where all the guys recite the dialogue to Raiders of the Lost Ark (letterbox edition, of course).

Jim, meanwhile, is ready to go full-on “Glengarry Glen Ross,” as movie buff Doug would say, to terrify employees into increased productivity. The conflict between Mike and Jim intensifies in the face of a hostile takeover bid, some dodgy stock-option deals and engineering problems with network loads.

On top of that, as everyone in the audience knows, the iPhone is somewhere out there, waiting silently in the future. (“Why would anyone want a phone without a keypad?” Mike scoffs when he finally sees the Steve Jobs pitch. “It’s a joke.”)

Individual performances are good, and the nerd ensemble cast works well together.

Baruchel (who got his start in the Canadian series Popular Mechanics for Kids) sells it as a guy whose devotion to engineering and design is admirably pure but disastrously blinkered.

Howerton is able to simultaneously seethe with genuine menace while also playing his shouty, super-intense corporate killer for laughs.

Johnson makes a virtue of his low budget by shooting “drunk documentarian” style, in deliberately banal corporate settings with a zoomy, jittery handheld camera and a voyeuristic vibe. There are nods to films like The Social Network — the melancholy final scene feels like a deliberate echo of the conclusion of Aaron Sorkin’s Facebook origin story.

<p>IFC Films/The Associated Press</p>
                                <p>As co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, Jay Baruchel (left) sells it as a guy whose devotion to engineering is admirably pure but disastrously blinkered despite the efforts of Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton).</p>

IFC Films/The Associated Press

As co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, Jay Baruchel (left) sells it as a guy whose devotion to engineering is admirably pure but disastrously blinkered despite the efforts of Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton).

But for most of its runtime, BlackBerry is basically a workplace comedy, with individual scenes that feel loose, improvisational and wryly funny but also slot into a tightly structured, well-paced larger story.

Johnson falters a little in the third act, which loses comic momentum without picking up enough compensating dramatic heft, but the first two-thirds of this movie are fast, fresh, smart and very entertaining.

Just make sure you put your iPhone on mute.

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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