Updated: Jun 29, 2023
The most recent film about over-ambitious entrepreneurs is winning and comprehensive
There seems to be a new thematic fascination in film and television within the last two years: over-ambitious entrepreneurs. Many projects have shined a light on start-ups and products that shook the world, from Theranos in The Dropout (2022) to Uber in Super Pumped (2022), WeWork in WeCrashed (2022), Tetris in Tetris (2023) and more recently Air Jordans in Air (2023). The latest film focusing on this specific subgenre is Blackberry (2023).
Blackberry follows the founders of the tech firm Research in Motion, Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug (Matt Johnson) who would go on to invent the revolutionary mobile-email device. The film follows them from their bumbling rise in 1996 to their peak and quick fall in 2007 and 2009. We see how the hard-handed business executive Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) wheedles his way into the company and helps take it to tremendous heights. Along the way you get a classic Icarian tale of growing too fast both in terms of monetary value and ego.
Matt Johnson pulls double duty, both acting and directing Blackberry (he also co-wrote the script). This is only Johnson’s third feature film, and his most high profile after a couple of indie festival circuits. Johnson is aware of Blackberry’s clichéd subgenre and familiar beats, and thus intelligently seeks to subvert them. You still get your typical scenes of a fumbling initial pitch to investors, a montage of rising stock and wealth, and the inevitable bashing of a phone by an angry executive. However, to differentiate itself from similar films, Johnson dons Blackberry with documentary-styled cinematography that gives viewers the feeling of sitting in on private and ugly moments. This along with a balance of both slight humor and some simplified tech exposition, leads to Blackberry being equally informative and entertaining.
The problem with many historical films, especially within this new crop of entrepreneurial-focused projects, is over-glamorizing the uglier aspects of business and developing an air of inevitability to their subjects’ success. Blackberry avoids that, thanks to the use of comedy; during a crucial pitch meeting, Mike forgets the Blackberry prototype in the taxi, a deteriorating workplace culture is shown in a comical cancellation of movie night, etc. This mixture of real-events and the comedic direction from Johnson, helps sell actual stakes, and makes Blackberry’s rise and fall as a company seem even more impressive as a result.
Johnson casts a very capable group of performers, from his own comedic relief as Doug, to the irascible Howerton as Jim. Baruchel, as the mumbling tech genius Mike, delivers his best performance yet, showing layers of vulnerability and timidity, while also demonstrating how greed and money corrupt him.
Blackberry is a successful showcase in the cyclical rise and fall of many start-ups, and while these may be familiar beats to any business or economy major, the way that Johnson frames Blackberry, literally as well as tonally, brings immersion and unpredictability to the narrative. This along with solid performances and a truly fascinating story, makes Blackberry one of the better films in this recent subgenre of over-ambitious entrepreneurial ventures.