Canadian director Matt Johnson, whose 2013 school shooting film The Dirties served as a calling card for one of indie film’s most unique voices, followed up his initial success with 2016’s Operation Avalanche, combining guerilla filmmaking and hand-crafted special effects to create a festival darling that posed the question: what if those conspiracy theories about NASA faking the moon landing weren’t just theories? After a 7-year hiatus from features, Johnson is back on the big screen for Blackberry, charting the creation of the device that started the smartphone revolution through a deeply comedic lens; think The Social Network as though it had been written by the team behind The Office, but much nerdier.
It’s 1996, and the founders of Research in Motion — Mike Lazaridis (a silver-haired Jay Baruchel at his most socially awkward) and Doug Fregin (Johnson, adorned almost exclusively in gym shorts, sweatbands and T-shirts emblazoned with film and video game logos) — have just given one of the most ill-conceived marketing pitches of all time. Their audience is Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), a cutthroat corporate executive who barely notices the two idiots fumbling through their cue cards in front of his desk; he’s too busy plotting how to upstage a rival during a board meeting later that day.
But fate has other plans, and soon Jim is offering to help Mike and Doug market their invention, a “cellphone and email machine all in one thing” in exchange for being named CEO and given 50% of the company. It doesn’t take long for Jim’s ruthless, profanity-laden management style to terrify the soft-spoken programmers and engineers at Research in Motion, who seem to spend more time playing video games and coordinating movie nights than actually getting anything done. But when Jim gets the team in front of a major cellular provider and Mike wows investors with an early prototype of the Blackberry, the smartphone era is born and Mike’s invention becomes the hottest item on the market.
Howerton has been flexing his comedic chops on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for more than 15 years, but he’s operating at a whole new level here, simultaneously channeling Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko and Tropic Thunder‘s Les Grossman to hilarious effect. Baruchel is solid here, if perhaps a little too subdued, and Johnson excels as the sort of clueless goofball that someone might enjoy having around, despite the near daily annoyances.
Blackberry once again finds Johnson paired with Director of Photography Jared Raab, who shot Johnson’s previous features, and his grainy, handheld faux-documentary style proves an excellent match for the subject matter. Johnson crafts some captivating sequences in the early stages of the film, with most of the humor borne from Jim’s boiling rage, which is more often than not directed at Doug’s laissez-faire work ethic. But it’s the film’s latter half, which finds Jim fending off a hostile takeover from the head of Palm (Cary Elwes) and installing a hardnosed COO (Michael Ironside, effortlessly menacing) to whip the engineering team into shape, which elicits some of the film’s biggest laughs. The light thriller elements introduced in the third act don’t quite gel with the tone Blackberry has established up to that point, and the inevitable downfall, which comes swiftly on the heels of Steve Jobs unveiling the iPhone, is a foregone conclusion. But taken as a whole, the experience is a tremendous amount of fun, and easily the best film Johnson has made yet.