Review: BlackBerry movie slyly encapsulates the story of a Canadian tech company’s rise and fall

It's a Canadian business movie, we had to review it.

Credit: IFC Films

It’s a Canadian business movie, we had to review it 

If you haven’t heard of BlackBerry, the film about the rise and fall of Waterloo-based software company Research in Motion (most famous for its BlackBerry smartphone line), you’re likely not alone.  

Even though it’s earned very good reviews—it currently holds a 98-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes—moviegoers have mostly ignored it. After debuting in theatres on May 12, BlackBerry has earned just shy of US$1.5 million worldwide. That’s not exactly breaking the box office, but with a limited theatre run (it hit a high of under 500 theatres) and a low cost (some US$5 million), that’s not horrible. After all, this is a Canadian story that comes with a much lower profile than, say, The Social Network  

There’s also a very reasonable argument that this movie is going to be a killer on whichever streaming site it ends up on. But those who did make the trek to the theatre (a significant percentage of which we would assume are based in Canada) were subject to a funny, surprisingly thrilling and captivating film.

Canadian director Matt Johnson (who also stars in the film rather hilariously as one of the company’s original founders) immerses the viewer in the greys of the tech industry in Waterloo in the 1990s. The depiction of Research in Motion is an interesting juxtaposition to the tech companies of today; instead of the minimalist interiors and kindly HR reps that allow for beer on tap, it’s a dozen raucous engineers who live for movie nights at a beaten-down office.  

The streamlining comes quickly though, as veteran executive Jim Ballsilie (marvellously cranked up to 11/10 by Glen Howerton of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame) forces his way into the company and saves it from extinction.   

What follows is an exaggerated version of what actually happened to RIM and BlackBerry. The film echoes some of The Social Network‘s keys to success, like having characters that are intriguing if not totally lovable, and using a killer soundtrack to add suspense. Both films are studies in genre manipulation, with parts feeling like dark thrillers and others like slapstick comedies.  

BlackBerry goes a little broader in the comedy sections with Howerton often crossing the line into full-on parody—there’s a quote involving vampires that’s particularly memorable. It’s also hard to find a film—outside of 2021’s Cruella—that’s more reliant on needle drops. But here the music cues feel essential. They beg the watcher not to bop their head to “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division and “Someday” by The Strokes while watching co-CEOs Balsilie and Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) scramble their way through the company’s peaks and valleys.  

In the end, though, it’s the performances that secure the film’s status as a definite watch. At the heart of the movie are two veteran actors in Howerton and Baruchel who are clearly having a heck of a time in their roles. Both men find nuances in the characters and ground them—an especially tall task given the absurdity of the Balsillie character. There likely won’t be any Oscars coming for the two performances, but you won’t regret watching them either. Oh, and if you’re a hockey fan, you’ll get a kick out of Canadian comedian Mark Critch’s take on Gary Bettman.