by Danny Eisenberg ·
Friday, May 26, 2023
Directed by: Matt Johnson
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Michael Ironside
Rated R, 120 minutes
A curious phenomenon of the smartphone age is that, of all the functions our phones serve, the phone call has become passé. Partly that’s because phones are now so effective at so many other things—texting, online browsing, photography, an endless sea of apps for gaming and finance and social media and so on—that the humble phone call pales in comparison. But it’s also because phone calls have undeniably gotten worse, so fraught are our communication lines with scammers and spam, so unlikely it is that an incoming call actually warrants answering. In an emblematic story, reported by NBC in 2021, a hiker who got stranded in the Colorado wilderness ignored the calls from would-be rescuers because he didn’t recognize the number.
Jay Baruchel (left) and Glenn Howerton star in “BlackBerry.” (Courtesy photo)
This deterioration of our user experience, the result of rushed design and careless manufacturing and corporate greed that precludes consumer satisfaction, is what Mike Lazaridis, the inventor of the BlackBerry, would call “the hiss.” “Have you heard the saying ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good?’ ” his business partner, Jim Balsillie, asks him in an early scene in “BlackBerry,” trying to convince him not to toil too long over a prototype. “Good enough is the enemy of humanity,” Lazaridis responds.
“BlackBerry” examines the rise and fall of Lazaridis’ invention, a surprisingly recent event—the phone’s peak came during the Obama years—yet which feels like the distant past when you consider the sophisticated instruments in our pockets today. Part history, part comedy, part cautionary tale, “BlackBerry” is an engaging romp that offers incisive commentary on how our everyday lives have transformed in the 21st century.
Portrayed by Jay Baruchel (“This Is the End”) in the best performance by any actor thus far this year, Lazaridis starts out as your quintessential tech wiz, equal parts brilliant and aloof. Baruchel makes Lazaridis torturously self-censoring, as though aware that his technical genius is no substitute for common sense; I’m reminded of the old adage, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” As the BlackBerry takes him and Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) to fantastic heights and drastic lows, Lazaridis transforms into the fool he perhaps feared he’d become: egotistical, demanding, and unreasonable (and sporting a ridiculous haircut). Howerton’s Balsillie, meanwhile, is a steady foil, an ambitious businessman driven further into his ambitions. With a quick temper and the emotionless glare of a serial killer, Balsillie has a more pronounced fall from grace, if not a surprising one.
That the movie captures the tragicomic arc of these two men with such depth, all while conveying a bevy of information about this era-defining technological breakthrough and the financials of the company at its center, is an immense credit to writer-director Matt Johnson (“The Dirties”), who also co-stars as Lazaridis’ right-hand man Doug Fregin. Succinct and full of boisterous characters, Johnson’s script is as entertaining as it is intellectual, posing many ethical questions that defy easy answers. Who should own the claim of a breakthrough when it was the product of collaboration? Is there a responsible way to wield power suddenly gained? What is the right balance between productivity demands and the human needs of rest and play?
If the movie makes any overarching argument, it’s against a relentless growth mindset; it wasn’t the BlackBerry’s sudden success that brought about its failure, but rather the attempt to hold onto that momentum in perpetuity. It was an industry-wide zero sum game, forcing a humble operation to vie for a monopoly it couldn’t keep. It was the iPhone, too, that sank the BlackBerry, the inescapable truism that newest is best. As soon as Steve Jobs put a sleek touch screen on the market, BlackBerry’s glory days were over.
Which leads us—and Lazaridis—back to the hiss, the quagmire of mediocre machines, the intolerance in modern life for the slow tinkering necessary to get anything right. In the final scene, Lazaridis goes through a box of BlackBerrys in a warehouse full of them, painstakingly fixing a hardware flaw one phone at a time. One can’t help but think of all the technological advances that have come along since the BlackBerry—Twitter and Facebook, streaming services, smart devices in every corner of the house, the newly arrived AI chatbot revolution—and all the hard, human work that it will take to make sense of ourselves amid so much white noise.
Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.