Matt Johnson’s tech dramedy Canadianizes corporate greed

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens May 12

It was a Canadian tragedy.

The crowning jewel of a Waterloo startup unfortunately known as RIM, the BlackBerry dominated the handheld device market for almost a decade until alternative operating systems iOS and Android emerged. Even aside from competition, RIM (it stands for Research In Motion) was unable to sustain their product’s growth. Unethical behaviour caused the company additional problems until it became a shadow of its former self.

The film BlackBerry shows the company’s rise and fall in a crisp two hours. The movie moves fast with clarity of purpose. Rather than focusing on the corporate intrigue, BlackBerry zeroes in on the three pivotal characters responsible for the rollercoaster ride: cofounders Mike Lazaridis (a low-key Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson), and interloper Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).

Balsillie is the one who drives the action. An ethically challenged Harvard graduate prone to anger, Jim practically bullies Lazaridis into making him co-CEO. Here’s the gist: without Balsillie’s take-no-prisoners approach, BlackBerry’s promise would have never materialized. But his ambition gets the better of him (he wants to own an NHL team) and he crosses lines bound to trigger alarms. Glenn Howerton is unrecognizable as RIM’s resident shark, thanks to a power-donut haircut and a different kind of sociopathic behaviour than the one in his long-running TV show.

BlackBerry — which was co-written by Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller — doesn’t go for laughs overtly but the callousness of Balsillie, his peers, and eventually Lazaridis, should get a chuckle or several.

I talked with Johnson — who also directed — about BlackBerry and his evolving profile, from indie rabblerouser (his low-budget, found-footage school-shooting movie The Dirties), to cult series creator (Nirvanna the Band the Show), to the big name on the poster.

I saw BlackBerry shortly after I saw Tetris and there’s no question your movie is easier to follow. Was clarity a goal from the beginning?

I also saw Tetris and I share your opinion. Because these biopics cover so much time and there’s so many details to them, they often feel as if they need to reorient the audience with on-screen text. We really didn’t want to do that. I think we solved it by focusing on the people and their individual struggles.

I’m not all that familiar with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but I was surprised by the amount of rage Glenn Howerton can conjure at a moment’s notice. How did you know?

I’d seen him in clips really yelling and getting quite angry. It seemed so sincere and is exactly what Jim needs to be: someone who can be very mad and justified in his anger, but you would still like him. Glenn can do that naturally. I prayed he would say yes.

Is that a bald cap on Glenn?

He shaved his head everyday. Glenn does a podcast and he made a bunch of episodes about it. He was very dedicated.

I particularly enjoyed the casting of Michael Ironside as hard-ass COO Charles Purdy. He’s the guy you want for that role.

That came from [Paul] Verhoeven [who directed Ironside in Starship Troopers and Total Recall]. I knew we needed someone bigger and scarier than Glenn. If we had him as the heavy, it would be a dream come true. And it was.

Regarding your own performance as RIM co-founder Doug Fregin, you’ve pulled double duty as actor and director several times since The Dirties. How have you perfected this juggling act?

You never think you’ve perfected it, that’s for sure. I find it much easier to direct when I’m acting because it gives you a place in the room. When you’re a character in a film, you’re wearing your costume, you’re a part of it. It gives me an approachability that I wouldn’t have if I was in a director’s chair. I prefer to degrade myself because it makes it easier for me to communicate.

How do you feel you have evolved as a director?

I was such an arrogant POS when I was young. Even though my persona may still be one of an iconoclast or agitator, I’m becoming calmer. I’m still critical [of the system], but it’s not the same sabre-rattling I did as a young man.

After watching your film, I went directly to Balsillie, Lazaridis, and Fregin’s Wikipedia pages and was surprised to see how squeaky clean they turned out to be.

Those guys have been very good at controlling their public image and avoiding negative press. They helped write the book we optioned for this movie [Losing the Signal: The Untold Story  Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry]. There hasn’t been a lot of interest about their personal lives… until now.

I know the NHL is particularly touchy about how it’s represented on screen. How did you pull it off?

I’ve been working with the same legal team for 10 years. My lawyer just gave us good advice.

Days after this interview, Jim Balsillie attended a screening of the film in Toronto. He claimed he didn’t recognize “himself” in the movie: “When I first saw it, I was confused for about five minutes,” Balsillie declared. “And then I thought, okay, we’re being roasted here. This is a satire.”

Film critic here: BlackBerry is not a satire. ■