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Nathan Weinbender reviews "BlackBerry"

At first glance, BlackBerry resembles your standard dramatic reimagining of recent history — in this case, the story of the unlikely creation of the world’s first smartphone and the developers whose Icarus-like ascent was cut short by both hubris and shortsightedness. But the movie is also an off-kilter comedy of manners, imagining what it’d be like to drop a couple hapless Canadians into the middle of a breathless corporate procedural.

It all began with a couple of geeks from Ontario and their tiny tech company Research in Motion. The CEO is meek engineering genius Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel), who oversees a small group of techies with his co-founder Doug Fregin (co-writer and director Matt Johnson), whose arrested adolescence extends to the red sweatband he wears every day. One hogs all the oxygen in the room; the other would rather blend into the wallpaper.

Lazaridis and Fregin have an idea that, at the time, sounds like the stuff of sci-fi: a tiny, consumer-grade supercomputer that’s also a telephone. It’s so outlandish, in fact, that we see their first prototype being hastily Frankensteined out of a GameBoy and some Speak and Spells.

That device, then called a PocketLink, catches the attention of businessman Jim Balsille (Glenn Howerton), who buys his way into a co-CEO position at RIM. He’s arrogant, dogged and prone to smashing things — basically everything the company’s founders are not — which of course means RIM’s prospects instantly quadruple, and by the early 2000s, the newly christened BlackBerry has become the industry standard.

Of course, we know how the cellphone wars shook out, and it’s hard not to have a few ironic chuckles as our heroes size up what they think is their biggest threat: PalmPilot. This may be the first period piece in which the characters look on, ashen-faced and defeated, as Steve Jobs announces the launch of the first iPhone.

BlackBerry begins in the vein of a slobs vs. snobs comedy before turning into a high-stakes tech thriller in the vein of The Social Network and Margin Call. The movie is also shot like an episode of Succession, with its jittery handheld camerawork and its predilection for photographing everything from behind a pane of glass or through blinds, but it doesn’t have that show’s deft sense of composition.

It’s the casting that makes the movie so entertaining. Baruchel, who has finally aged out of his role as a second stringer in the Apatow Repertory Players, brings a real vulnerability to his hangdog role. Howerton, who has had nearly two decades’ experience playing a glassy-eyed psychopath on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is all bluster and brazenness as Balsille. Director Johnson, who has developed a cult following in Canada with scrappy independent films like The Dirties and Operation Avalanche, at first seems like he’s in a much broader comedy than his co-stars. But his Fregin eventually gets us on his side, and his slobby exterior belies perhaps the shrewdest business instinct of all.

Johnson and his co-writer Matt Miller have adapted BlackBerry from a nonfiction book by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, and I’m not sure how many liberties they’ve taken in order to wring more tension and laughs from the story. Regardless, they’ve made a fable that’s both sharp and charmingly unassuming, a cautionary tale about technological innovation being swallowed up by the hungry tides of capitalism. How very Canadian of them.
Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.