Review by Sean Boelman
Tech culture has proven time and time again to be much more entertaining than one would expect (just look at The Social Network or Steve Jobs for examples). Thanks to phenomenal dialogue and some exceptional performances, Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry is one of the best biopics in recent memory — if for nothing else, because of how much fun it is to watch.
The film tells the story of the extraordinary rise and explosive fall of the BlackBerry, the device that introduced the world to the concept of a smartphone. It’s a biopic that’s equal parts funny and intense, but in all of the craziness, the craziest thing is that — even though it’s set in the 2000s — it feels like a period piece.
The cinematography, production design, costuming, and hair and make-up all do an exceptional job of transporting viewers back to the late ‘90s and early ‘00s during the earliest days of the smartphone wars. On top of that, the editing and soundtrack do an excellent job of keeping the viewer feeling engaged throughout the entire runtime.
The script by Johnson along with Matthew Miller is razor-sharp, balancing the tones of comedy and tension quite well. This story that’s so wild it had to have been true was previously turned into a book by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, and in the hands of Johsnon, the material becomes breeding ground for an often absurd, sometimes stressful race against the clock.
If the movie does have one weakness, it’s that it is somewhat shallow, failing to engage particularly deeply with the legacy of its subjects beyond the expected “don’t fly too close to the sun” message. It’s missing that deeper level of meaning to make it outstanding — but it’s still extraordinary in its ability to entertain as a biopic.
The film boasts an impressive ensemble, led by Jay Baruchel as the quiet brains behind the cell phone and Johnson as his more boisterous friend and engineer. The dynamic between the two of them is pretty fantastic, and a big part of what makes the movie work. There are also some great supporting turns from recognizable actors like Micahel Ironside, Saul Rubinek, and Cary Elwes.
That being said, the movie’s big standout is Glenn Howerton, whose performance as matter-of-fact businessman Jim Balsillie is so commanding that he constantly steals the show. Howerton disappears into the role, not only because of the excellent hair and make-up work, but because he is so intimidating and aggressive in the role that it’s virtually impossible to look away from his performance.
BlackBerry may not be a super insightful biopic, but it more than makes up for that by being one of the most entertaining films the genre has had to offer in quite a long time. It’s nice to finally see a movie in this genre that’s actually willing to be rough-around-the-edges and thrive in its spunky spirit.
BlackBerry screened at the 2023 Gasparilla International Film Festival, which ran March 23-26 in Tampa, FL.