Chaotic, comedic and surprisingly personal — thumbs up for Jay Baruchel's BlackBerry

What's behind the buzz over BlackBerry? Eli Glasner digs into the new movie that tracks the rise and fall of the phone company featuring a surprising turn by Canadian Jay Baruchel.

Jay Baruchel steps out of his comfort zone in the loose and lively business epic

What the real Jim Balsillie thinks about the Blackberry movie

28 days ago
Duration 7:22
A new movie takes on the rise and fall of the iconic tech device Blackberry, but how accurate is the portrayal? A conversation with two people who know the real story well: former Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie and Jacquie McNish, who wrote Losing the Signal, a behind-the-scenes look at the Canadian company.

In the film BlackBerry, our first glimpse of Research In Motion (RIM) looks more like Rise of the Nerds meets Animal House.  The decor is equal parts AV club and computer camp. Movie posters and microchip schematics fight for space on the walls. In the middle of it all, RIM co-founder Mike Lazaridis scribbles names for a phone that will change everything.

The BlackBerry, the phone with the keyboard, ushered in our always-on, always-connected world. Today, the name is synonymous with failure. BlackBerry the movie blasts us back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when the company from Waterloo, Ont., dared to take on the telecom giants. 

a group of people watch a screen
In the centre left and right, Jay Baruchel and Matt Johnson play Research In Motion co-founders Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin in BlackBerry, the movie. (Elevation Pictures)

So how do you make a film about a phone? 

First, start with the source material. Based loosely (and I mean looselyon the book Losing the Signal by Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish, what sets BlackBerry apart from other slick business epics is director Matt Johnson. To be frank, it's the best thing he's ever done.

WATCH | BlackBerry official trailer:

The Canadian director is best know for scrappy films such as the moon hoax Operation Avalanche and the TV series Nirvanna the Band the Show. The Frank Zappa of the Canadian film industry, Johnson suffers no fools, break rules and established a frenetic shooting style early on with The Dirties.

Part of Johnson's genius is boiling the business bedlam down to three larger-than-life personalities. Jay Baruchel goes against type as Mike Lazaridis, the brilliant engineer who drove RIM's innovation. Johnson does double duty appearing on camera as Douglas Fregin, Mike's best friend and RIM co-founder. 

man in suit sits in a plane
Glenn Howerton plays Jim Ballsillie who joined RIM to become BlackBerry's co-CEO. (Elevation Pictures)

From sunny Philadelphia to Waterloo 

While Mike can redesign a modem with ease, he's a painfully ineffectual businessman. Enter Jim Balsillie, the carnivorous dealmaker who instantly sees the potential in RIM's new phone. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Glenn Howerton commits to the character entirely, from the shaved bald head to Balsillie's take-no-prisoners fury that convinces Mike that Jim can take RIM to the next level. 

While WeCrashed, Super Pumped and The Dropout ushered in a new wave of tech-inspired series, what separates BlackBerry isn't the feature film format, but Johnson's instincts. Like The Office sitcom, Johnson and his frequent cinematographer Jared Raab employ a loose handheld shooting style. At the RIM workshop the camera hovers, capturing the dorm-like atmosphere as Doug and his army of engineers alternate between playing Doom and constructing a phone that could access email. With quick edits and a fist-pumping soundtrack with everything from MC Hammer to Matthew Good, Johnson puts us in the trenches. The camera can be a silent confidant in sitcoms but with BlackBerry, it's a voyeur, catching Doug's crestfallen expression as Mike climbs into a car with Jim. 

WATCH | Jay Baruchel and Matt Johnson talking about challenging expectations playing Mike Lazaridis:

Actor Jay Baruchel talks about becoming Blackberry CEO Mike Lazaridis

1 month ago
Duration 2:35
Jay Baruchel is taking on a more dramatic role in the film Blackberry where he plays company co-founder Mike Lazaridis. Baruchel spoke to CBC's Eli Glasner about the challenge and what attracted him to the part.

A new side of Jay Baruchel

While BlackBerry bristles with chaotic comedic energy, Baruchel's performance as Mike Lazaridis is no joke. The insular inventor is far from the elastic-faced characters we've come to expect. There are no easy jokes, no punchlines to release the tension. Instead Baruchel channels his energy into Lazaridis's obsessive drive to make "the best phone in the world." Indeed, the only moments the engineer truly comes to life are when there's a problem to solve such as a hissing intercom, or finding a way to squeeze more data packets into cell tower. 

For the actor who's actively chosen to live and work in Canada and has a maple leaf tattooed over his heart, Mike Lazaridis is more than just a challenge. It seems kismet. As the pressure on the company grows we see him fighting against outsourcing production to China. Both Balsillie and Lazaridis took on the world from their home in Waterloo. For Baruchel, that makes them patriots and this a story worth telling. 

two men stare at each other
Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton as Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. Jay Baruchel told CBC News he relished the idea of taking on a more serious, less comedic character. (Elevation Pictures)

But the secret sauce to Jay's performance isn't the flag waving or the grey wig plastered to his head — it's his co-conspirator Matt Johnson. The role of Doug could have gone to any number of actors. Actors that would have likely added a little more star power. But Baruchel insisted it had to be Johnson. 

Why? As Baruchel told CBC News, "I wanted to jam with him." To him, it isn't a Matt Johnson film unless he's in them.  The result is great on-screen duo, each actor drawing on the other. Doug acting as Mike's buffer, keeping the chaos at bay. He's everything that Mike isn't — this loud, boisterous, shaggy-haired cheerleader keeping RIM's army of nerds motivated. 

WATCH | Jay Baruchel on why Doug had to be played by Matt Johnson:

Why Jay Baruchel wanted director Matt Johnson on screen in Blackberry

1 month ago
Duration 1:51
In the movie Blackberry, Jay Baruchel and Matt Johnson play company co-founders and best friends Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin. Baruchel spoke to CBC's Eli Glasner about why it had to be Johnson and the difference casting the director made.

BlackBerry is a chaotic comedy bursting with details from Doug's ongoing passion for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Jim Balsillie's NHL side hustle (wait until you see who's playing Commissioner Gary Bettman.) While the groundbreaking smartphone was the beginning of the digital slippery slope we trudge through today, the heart of BlackBerry is a story about friendship.  It's about what we lose as our ambitions get the better of us. It's the drive to create the best, against the drive to be on top. Either way, buckle up. 

WATCH | BlackBerry movie follows rise and fall of tech company:


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.