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Big boys play with their new toy: Canadian comedy charts the rise and the collapse of "the world's favourite phone", in a movie bursting with testosterone and toxic masculinity - live from the 73rd Berlinale


Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his best friend Douglas Fregin (played by the director himself) run a small technology business called Research in Motion in the Canadian town of Waterloo, not far from Toronto, in the mid-1990s. The two nerds chaotically manage a team of about 10 researchers. The working conditions are barely professional: “it’s a tradition that each one of us should build their own desk”, Doug asserts. The two young men lack tact and the most basic communication skills. And they are terrible negotiators, too, easily falling prey to an unscrupulous American buyer that fails to pay them U$16 million. A more confident Doug coaches a more shy and gullible Mike how to demand the money from the client during a telephone call, but his efforts fall flat on their face.

On the other hand, this gang of research experts from hell does not lack talent. Cutthroat American businessman Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) immediately recognises this and literally buys himself into the company CEO office, a title which he would share with Mike for many years to come. He bullies Mike, Doug and their gang into delivering revolutionary products on impossible deadlines: “you have until tomorrow morning to create a new prototype”. His ruthless business tactics combined with the Research in Motion’s tech knowledge proves extremely effective. They soon come up with the titular device, the first one blending telephone and e-mail functionalities over a data network. This means that end-users can talk and write to each others reliably and at a very low cost, unlike paging and SMS. We are about to enter the age when people no longer have to “commute” to work, but instead merely “communicate” from anywhere on the planet. A very ambitious pretence for nearly three decades ago.

The BlackBerry becomes the world’s first smartphone, with a market share exceeding 60%. The three men become superrich, and they co-opt workers from leading technology companies into their business (including a Google engineer for a whopping U$10 million). Mike eventually hones his business acumen and is prepared to meet clients and investors on his own. But our three rogue heroes eventually meet their Waterloo (and this is not a reference to the Canadian town where Research in Motion was founded). Apple creates the world’s first touch screen smartphone, making the BlackBerry keyboard redundant. Mike watches the real Steve Jobs on television boasting the groundbreaking new functionality to an audience of enthusiastic technology buyers. Mike remains adamant that customers love pushing a real button, refusing to recognise the danger that the American company poses. Thus quickly begins their downfall, which is aided by stock fraud accusations that nearly land the two CEOs in prison.

BlackBerry isn’t a celebratory movie, but instead a caustic comedy, often bordering on the farcical and absurd. The three leads are neither likeable for relatable. Their hair is particularly bizarre, conveying a real sense foolishness and insanity. Doug has a red headband permanently attached to his messy coiffure, and wears baggy clothes. He looks more like Olivia Newton-John in the videoclip of Physical than a technology expert. A mostly bald Jim is super aggressive, constantly delivering expletive-laden tirades, and verbally abusing anyone who comes this way. He is particularly fond of the f-word. A Gordon Ramsey on crystal meth type of attitude. And Mike is thoroughly goofy, with a precocious silverfox look that eventually morphs into creepy Julian Assange with a finger-in-the-socket type of hair.

All the characters of BlackBerry are almost entirely flat, embodying various types of toxic and failed masculinity cliches: the heavy-handed nerd, the nasty businessman, the sexless hippy, and so on. These men have no emotional depth, and we never learn anything about their romantic life. A movie guaranteed not to pass the Bechdel Test – but then what woman would want to associate herself with these bizarre types?

Ultimately, this fast-paced comedy with a duration of more than two hours is a mockery of big boys blindly driven by ambition, and with their ego the size of Jupiter. The frenetic rhythm is aided by an energetic soundtrack featuring the Strokes, the Kinks, the White Stripes, Joy Division and Elastica (the English rock band delivers the song most suitable to the ambitions of these telephony experts: Connection). Not all the humorous elements work. The constant shouting and insulting becomes boring and repetitive. And the performances aren’t particularly funny, leaving viewers in awe of their bizarre wigs instead. As a result, much of the action feels as cold as the metallic case of the much-coveted smartphones that sell in the millions.

Writers Matt Johnson Johnson and Matthew Miller based the film script on the book Losing The Signal: The Untold Story Behind The Extraordinary Rise And Spectacular Fall Of Blackberry by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff.

BlackBerry has just premiered in the Official Competition of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival. The movie has secured distribution across most of the globe with Paramount.

By Victor Fraga - 17-02-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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