The number of current films about products is a bit odd. Is this it? Have we simply run out of ideas, and are now looking at whatever is lying around the house for inspiration?
Perhaps it’s simply the consumer-soaked society we live in. To be fair, some of these films are less about the stuff that people buy, and more about the reasons it was created in the first place. This idea is infinitely more interesting than shoes, phones or junk food. And when it’s tied together with comedy, tragedy and drama, it verges on the Shakespearian.
Nowhere is this convergence of the quotidian and the extraordinary more epic than in BlackBerry. It’s a new film from director Matt Johnson, whose 2013 mockumentary The Dirties depicted two friends confronting their high-school bullies. BlackBerry is another buddy film of a sort. On the surface, BlackBerry is about the Canadian engineers and entrepreneurs who devised the eponymous device before being muscled out of the market by other smartphones. One’s first thought might be, why would anyone want to make a film about that?
But at its tender heart, this is tale of ambition, greed, loyalty, betrayal, friendship. All that tasty stuff. Is it as delish as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? Yes, Virginia Slims, it is.
It is also a thoroughly, unrepentantly Canadian concoction.
To set the scene: the year is 1996, the place Waterloo, Ontario, and two schlubby men are on their way to pitch an idea for a new cellular phone to a manufacturing company. The pair in question, Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his buddy Doug Fregin (played by Johnson himself), are not the most impressive or slick entrepreneurs. But they have gumption. As does the man they are pitching to, one Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton). Mispronunciation of his last name as "Ball Silly" is an ongoing joke throughout the film, so get it out of your system now.
For people who are only familiar with Howerton from his goofy character on the long-running series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, this performance is a revelation. I’ve rarely seen more concentrated white-hot rage packed into a single human frame. It’s terrifying.
To say that things don’t go well in this meet is an understatement. Obsessed with the buzz emanating from a cheaply made intercom, Lazaridis is distracted. Meanwhile, Fregin, resplendent in a T-shirt and headband like a low-rent John McEnroe, is despairing over the fact that the easel meant to hold the marketing material isn’t co-operating. Despite his name, Ballsillie isn’t silly at all. Unsmiling, filled with sulfurous smouldering fury and mean as a snake, he gives the pair the boot after their resoundingly bad presentation, adding that they need a better name for their device. He should talk.
Meanwhile, back at the offices of Lazaridis and Fregin’s company, Research in Motion, the nerds-cum-employees are doing what they do best: watching science fiction movies and playing video games. The idea for the BlackBerry could very well have died on the vine right there, but when Ballsillie gets fired from his job for being an unrepentant dickhead, he offers Lazaridis and Fregin a deal. He will invest in their idea but wants to be CEO of the company.
What happens next sets the tone for the remainder of the film. After being stiffed by their other contacts, and with imminent financial collapse hovering, the pair decide to take the offer, and call up their new erstwhile CEO. While Lazaridis dithers and stutters on the phone, egged on by his buddy on the other end of the line, Ballsillie is watching hockey and physically embodying a density of silent fury. It is a perfect encapsulation of the competing forces at work — ego, desperation, money and the things that men do to other men.
No buts or “balls silly” about it: this is an intensely male-dominated film. None of the principal characters apparently have partners or families. The only women onscreen are incidental — a secretary, a lone female programmer, a government official.
The highs, lows, and roller-coaster twists of business form the bulk of the action, but immediately beneath that is other squishier stuff. Yes, I’m talking about feelings. Although one might be hard-pressed to find much human tenderness in Ballsillie, who is so harsh that even his hair has apparently fled in abject terror, leaving his pate as smooth as a cue ball and just as impervious. But even this man has a few soft spots, hockey being one of them. This deep-seated love-hate relationship with Canada’s favourite pastimes leads to perhaps the film’s best line.
To its credit, BlackBerry’s smart writing, zippy pace and thoroughly Canadian approach gives it a great deal of charm. There is genuine heartbreak in the film’s third act that hits home with nostril-singeing truth. It is also just pure pleasure to see Canadian actors Saul Rubinek and Michael Ironside doing their thing. More, please!
The recent spate of product-oriented films is really about human strivers. It’s also about what happens when success murders friendship.
Another thrilling version of this concept is Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis). Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell (a.k.a. Po) form the grist of the film. The pair met at a party when they were barely out of their teens. Along with some of the people who would later become the band Pink Floyd, they were rousted by the cops. Neither Thorgerson nor Powell ran, but instead took the heat. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and the genesis of what would become Hipgnosis, the visionary company behind many of the seminal album covers of all time.
After moving to London in the mid-1960s to attend art school, the pair fell into design, when Pink Floyd asked them to create the artwork for their record A Saucerful of Secrets.
Director Anton Corbijn packs in epic stories along with a parade of famous rock stars. Everyone from Led Zeppelin to Peter Gabriel showed up at the Hipgnosis studio in the company’s heyday, but the beating heart of the film is Powell, who narrates the story with a mixture of astonishment, glee and raw unfiltered emotion.
In addition to Thorgerson and Powell’s own experiences, the film is also a recounting of and reckoning with rock music’s towering apotheosis. The mid-70s was an era when money was gushing out like water from a busted spigot and musicians could indulge their every possible whim, whether it was a staging a photo that required a giant blow-up pig, the Battersea Power Station and a police marksman or lighting a man on fire.
Over the course of their professional relationship, Thorgerson and Powell balanced each other’s skills and eccentricities, but as the heady heights of the 1970s descended into the rancidity of punk and then the pop brightness of the early '80s, tastes changed. The idea of spending thousands of dollars on album art was no longer deemed necessary. Hipgnosis shifted its focus to film and video production. It was the beginning of the end.
But before we get to that part of the story, there are so many stories, each one more ridiculous than the last, alongside some of the iconic album covers. Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Band on the Run — the list goes on.
So, what to take away from these quite different films? Just that friendship and success, in the service of making something extraordinary, is pretty combustible stuff. It’s as likely to explode and blow one to pieces as it is to make amazing contributions to society and culture.
The most curious part of both these films, as different as they are, is that kooky friends can still change the world. If they don’t murder each other first, that is.
‘BlackBerry’ is playing in theatres across Canada. ‘Squaring the Circle’ opens at VIFF’s Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on Tuesday.