As they go to pitch their revolutionary concept of a cell phone that sends emails to a potential investor, Canadian engineering whizz Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his goofball partner Doug Fregin (director Matt Johnson) drive past a pony and trap. It is 1996 and, with the help of ruthless CEO Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) and the funds he pumps into the ramshackle tech outfit they have set up in Waterloo, Ontario, they’re about to change telecommunications forever.
For a brief, frenzied moment, the BlackBerry was the must-have accessory and status symbol for anybody with thumbs nimble enough to operate its tiny physical keyboard. Like that horse and carriage, though, it was hardwired with obsolescence, the touchscreen smartphone rapidly consigning it to the same grave as the fax machine and the pager.
Johnson’s film – the latest drama on a conveyor belt of titles that mythologise the origins of game-changing products (see also Air, Tetris and The Beanie Bubble) – turns the BlackBerry’s meteoric rise and precipitous fall into a cautionary tale of underdogs beating the system only to let it divide and conquer them. What we had here, ironically, was a failure to communicate.
BlackBerry’s best bits ping in its first half where Johnson and co-writer Matthew Miller milk both comedy and tension from an entertaining series of mini-crises – a race to build a prototype in 24 hours, for example, or the losing of it en route to a make-or-break show-and-tell at Bell Atlantic – which strain Mike and Jim’s business marriage of convenience to breaking point.
With success, however, comes a noticeable dip in narrative hold and a diffuseness borne out of too many competing plot threads. Balsillie’s attempt to buy a National Hockey League franchise, for instance, is so tangential as to be virtually irrelevant.
The performances keep us engaged. Baruchel prevails over a succession of terrible wigs to bring both doggedness and poignancy to his socially awkward inventor. Yet the stand-out turn comes from Howerton, the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia actor ensuring every scene he’s in carries the threat of an explosively furious meltdown. ‘I’m from Waterloo – where the vampires hang out!’ he yells at one point, when things fail to go his way. He’ll meet his match, soon enough. Unlike Napoleon, though, he’ll never surrender.
Blackberry is in US cinemas now and in UK cinemas on October 6.