Marking Matt Johnson’s official third low-budget feature film, “Blackberry” is pure gold, with comedic timing that takes the edge of the otherwise grim topic of the rise and fall of the beloved Blackberry cellphone.
Premiering at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, “Blackberry” follows the success of Johnson’s “Operation Avalanche,” which premiered at 2016 Sundance. Similarly mockumentary style, “Blackberry” follows the creators of the Blackberry. Mike Lazaridis is played by Jay Baruchel (“How to Train Your Dragon) and and co-founder Douglas Fregin is played by the director, Johnson.
The film begins with Lazaridis and Fregin pitching the phone idea to businessman Jim Balsilli, played by Glenn Howeron (“It’s Always Sunny”). Instantly, the character’s personalities are clear. Fregin and Lazaridis stumble through the pitch with Lazaridis quietly murmuring to himself and Fregin excitedly displaying the phone prototype. Balsilli, clearly unamused, ends the meeting quickly, suggesting the two go elsewhere with their pitch. Fregin and Lazaridis return to their office, Research in Motion (RIM), which is a messy space composed of random electronics filled with other men who also wear graphic t-shirts, headbands and play video games during work hours. It is clear that the two need someone professional to handle the business – a goal accomplished in the following scene when Balsilli calls back to set up a meeting with them. At the meeting, Balsilli, still the only one wearing a suit, offers to join their business venture, if only they give him a position as Co-CEO. Initially resistant, the two agree after they find out the Department of Robotics scammed them $16 million by claiming prototypes they sent a year prior came broken. With the agreement, RIM is never the same, as Balsilli is able to get Blackberry sold with the genius of Fregin and Lazaridis, and before long, the company is worth upwards of $3 billion. For a story that audiences already know the ending to, Johnson is a gifted filmmaker in understanding the draw to keep watching has to come elsewhere. Unlike “The Social Network,” which focuses primarily on Zuckerberg’s journey, “Blackberry” is about relationships. About 20 minutes into the film, Lazaridis is about to get in the car with Balsilli to go to a pitch meeting when he explains to Balsilli that he needs Fregin to come because he’s “his best friend.” Five minutes later, he establishes to Balsilli that he will only work with him if he will “promise never to lie,” a moment that also foreshadows the climax of the film. During the midpoint of the film, Balsilli cancels on a pitch meeting and Lazaridis reluctantly asks Fregin to join him. Moments like these illustrate how much the characters are changing .
Almost every moment of the film feels expertly crafted, from the technique in the filmmaking (think “The Office” style), to wardrobe, script writing, casting and all the elements sprinkled throughout. However, the best scene occurs in act one.
Balsilli and Lazaridis are heading to their first pitch meeting and viewers are on the edge of their seats as the two are running late. Once they make it to the office, viewers only have a moment to catch their breath before Lazaridis announces he forgot the prototype. Balsilli yells at Lazaridis and Lazaridis quickly leaves, much to the confusion of Balsilli. Balsilli, alone, goes into the pitch room, where he fumbles to explain the phone and the businessmen remark to him that he “clearly is not a tech person,” and that he “got scammed by a bunch of nerds.” In this moment, Balsilli realizes he might have gotten everything wrong. As a viewer, I also wondered if Balsilli was getting scammed. Up to this point in the film, there is no validation of Lazaridis and Fregin actually knowing what they are doing. Purposefully, we only know a prototype of theirs ‘didn’t work.’ Despite everyone in the world knowing Blackberry worked, Johnson is able to suspend that belief for a moment – an insanely brilliant move. Just then, Lazaridis runs in with the prototype and begins explaining why the Blackberry is different, talking more confidently than the audience has ever seen him. It’s as if we are the businessmen in the room, being just as shocked by this change in character presentation. It is one of the best executed scenes in a film.
“Blackberry” received outstanding critical acclaim. For a film made for under $5 million, Johnson proves that films created by people who genuinely care about the craft can succeed, even without the finance and marketing from major studios.