Glenn Howerton is the Molten Core of Hilarious Microbudget Biopic BlackBerryMovies Reviews Matt Johnson
There is much to love about Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry, and then there is the ineffable gravitational pull of its furious white-hot core: A 40-something pale man’s bald pate, so smooth it seems forged by eons of tectonic movement, from which erupts perfect sleazy ‘80s-business-guy bon mots alloyed to unbridled sociopathic rage. Johnson’s always been at the heart of his films, starring in The Dirties and Operation Avalanche and serving as the source of most of the chaos steering Nirvanna the Band the Show, his series with Jay McCarrol, but in BlackBerry he plays Doug, some guy who technically doesn’t even exist. No, Doug is nothing in BlackBerry next to the movie’s everything, Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie, a vessel for the alarming voice of Canada’s most radioactive co-CEO. Lives inevitably wilt in his orbit. “I’m from Waterloo, where the VAM–PIRES hang out!” he hollers at a room of NHL executives, each syllable pronounced as if the sentence is punctuated by tombstones. For a moment we get what he means. He uses an inhuman cadence because his rage transcends mortal flesh. He inhales all the air in the room to scream at it. He is a man who exists only to suck.
To their credit, the NHL executives are just protecting the league from a maniac with the SEC on his ass, but Jim doesn’t see it that way. This is because he’s Canadian, because this big American league has never taken its Canadian teams seriously, and it doesn’t matter how much money he has (or pretends to have), Americans will always condescend to their northern neighbors and Jim Balsillie will likely always have a chip on his narrow shoulder.
In Johnson’s work, scrappy and sometimes insufferable nobodies with delusional ambitions find themselves changing the world, or at least finally booking their band at the cool local venue. It isn’t much of a stretch to find Johnson’s approach to filmmaking in the way his characters tend to ignore reality to bend it to their will, making the most of minuscule budgets and a mockumentary aesthetic, but no character Johnson has played has ever sculpted time as wrathfully as Jim Balsillie. As much as 2013’s The Dirties is about an aspiring teen filmmaker (Johnson) planning a school shooting through the surreal distance his lens affords him—a premise Johnson somehow manages to balance with humor and pathos—and 2016’s Operation Avalanche chronicles the methodical 1969 faking of the moon landing via the work of mostly two anonymous CIA agents (Johnson and Owen Williams), BlackBerry is an Oscar-bait biopic about making Oscar-bait biopics on a Matt Johnson budget.
Johnson’s regular cinematographer, Jared Raab, shoots the film more like D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ Clinton doc The War Room than The Social Network, BlackBerry’s inescapable predecessor, but Johnson’s aim is no less Icarus-like: To make a period piece about the founding of a transformational and dramatically tragic tech company with an inimitable, blackly comic performance at it center. To fill messy offices with milquetoasts and schlubs who listen to Slint and recite lines from They Live and alter history. Glenn Howerton’s Jim Balsillie is made for awards show clips.
Based on Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, the film tells of the rise and fall of the pocket device company, from its exploited beginnings in the mid-’90s as the brainchild of the timid, always-inward-looking Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his best friend Doug, to the company’s collapse in the wake of the iPhone’s emergence (and more than one SEC violation on Jim’s part). Johnson is playing himself, or at least the character of himself he inhabits preternaturally in everything he does, the man who would never let work get in the way of a movie night. But for once, he is the moral center, as Howerton stalks every frame like he’s about to murder someone with words, and Baruchel’s Mike becomes lost in the existential morass of tech valley, leeching violence from Jim—his co-CEO, as our three protagonists decide over a tense breakfast early in the film—to survive, arguably losing his soul along the way. Baruchel’s is a deeply empathetic portrayal, in that he seems to understand that Lazaridis’ downfall wasn’t because he became too much of a shitty business guy like Jim, but because he sacrificed the only thing he cared about: The quality of what he built. He could never find the balance between scale and product. As funny as it is, BlackBerry is haunted by that loss in a way that biopics typically only feint
This is all the makings of Oscar gold, rife with the story beats that The Social Network codified—and even succeeds in some clever elliptical storytelling, the stuff that makes award bodies shiver—but Johnson’s and Raab’s aesthetic consistently pulls the iconism of the story into messier immediacy. They refuse to give into an awards-friendly sheen while reveling in heavily researched production design, Joy Division and Rage Against the Machine sharing the film’s playlist as it’s awash in pop culture. Johnson can’t help but make Doug obsessed with movies, because Johnson is obsessed with movies, and so Doug references movies constantly, wears movie t-shirts constantly, gives meaning to his world through movies. A person’s soul is defined by what they love most, and BlackBerry feels like the closest Johnson’s ever gotten to defining that for himself.
The lessons in movies like this typically indict hubris and solipsism as the sins tech entrepreneurs commit, growing increasingly alone at the top, their obsessions either destroying them or transforming them into something else, into someone else. Instead, Johnson has nothing to criticize about the kind of will that has allowed him to make, now, a movie with Howerton, giving the actor the best role of his life. This is not because Jim Balsille is different from Dennis Reynolds, but because they come from the same mold, have been mixed up with the same pestle, forged of the same anti-mettle. Doug, like Johnson, gets out of BlackBerry the cleanest, the only character unchanged by the success of their company. Late in the film, Doug reminds Mike why their engineers come to work every day, missing their kids’ birthdays and vacations and family lives. Why they put up with the demands of Purdy (Michael Ironside, effortless), an executive Jim brings in like his evolved Pokemon to pick up production and verbally abuse staff. Mike knows the answer, but doesn’t say anything.
Meanwhile, Howerton rallies against the dying of the light. It’s his bullheaded determination that drives BlackBerry (the company) to success, and his flagrant law-breaking that poached engineers (Rich Sommer and SungWon Cho) from Google and other billion-dollar tech companies to be able to build a network capable of handling a scalable customer base. Jim does so illegally, but Johnson never denies that Jim’s viciousness built that company from a failing modem manufacturer into a biopic-worthy drama. After all, Johnson illegally snuck into NASA offices to shoot Operation Avalanche. Would Johnson succeed as a director if he weren’t so stubborn and single-minded as an ejaculatory Jim Balsillie? Imagine what he could do—or what the studio wouldn’t let him do—with a David Fincher budget.
Director: Matt Johnson
Writers: Matt Johnson, Matthew Miller
Starring: Glenn Howerton, Jay Baruchel, Matt Johnson, Michael Ironside, Cary Elwes, Rich Sommer, Saul Rubinek, SungWon Cho
Release Date: May 12, 2023
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. He writes a weekly blog on Werner Herzog movies, The Werner Herzblog. He’s also on Twitter.