With director and co-writer Matt Johnson’s feature film Blackberry getting an extended, limited series treatment on AMC this week, the entertainment world is abuzz with Oscar (and now Emmy) talk about the film’s scene-stealing co-star, Glenn Howerton. As real-life financial bulldog and eventual Blackberry CEO Jim Balsillie, Howerton shaved the religiously maintained mane of hair he’s sported as narcissistic Dennis Reynolds for 16 seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, that actorly sacrifice just one indicator of how the perennially ambitious, often typecast actor viewed Balsillie as the role destined to bring Howerton a measure of the success he’s always sought.
Of course, Howerton is a success, by most measures. It’s Always Sunny, created alongside longtime creative partners and fellow struggling actors Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney in 2005 as part-calling card to casting agents and part-lark, was unexpectedly picked up by FX, and has since gone on to run for 16 seasons. Rounding out the tale of a clutch of scheming, self-obsessed, variously reprehensible Philly bar owners with the outstanding Kaitlin Olson and, after a close call with cancellation after Season 1, TV legend and up-for-anything old pro Danny DeVito, the three creators’ careers became inextricably bound to their creation.
That’s not a bad thing in general, as It’s Always Sunny has built not just a rabid fan base but a sterling critical reputation throughout its record-breaking run. (That this show about resolutely terrible behavior supplanted the squeaky-clean The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as the longest-running live-action sitcom in American history during its 14th season is something of a meta-textual middle finger.) And that Sunny has been inexplicably shut out of Emmy consideration (apart from its hard-working stunt department) from the start only bolsters the show’s outsider credibility in the eyes of its diehard champions.
And yet. Glenn Howerton unexpectedly quit the series after its 12th season, Dennis Reynolds’ final episode, “Dennis’ Double Life” seeing Howerton’s perennially self-absorbed character soundly rejecting the role he’s been playing in the Gang’s lifetime of shenanigans. “I can’t do any of this sh*t anymore!,” Dennis roars, as he leaves Paddy’s alongside the woman and child he’d earlier abandoned after a cross-country dalliance. At the time, it seemed like mere plot contrivance, a tingly cliffhanger intended to tickle the show’s formula going into its 13th season. And then the news came out that Howerton was indeed making a Dennis-esque exit from the series, the actor calling his shocking withdrawal from the show he’d helped create, “partially a creative and personal decision,” and leaving Dennis’ final tirade about feeling trapped and stifled by the Gang’s entertaining chaos ringing in fans’ ears.
Howerton was quickly announced as the star of his own solo vehicle, the Mike O’Brien-created sitcom A.P. Bio, alongside Patton Oswalt. There, Howerton, as disgraced philosophy professor turned high school science teacher Jack Griffin, took on a role not entirely dissimilar from the one that made him famous. His Griffin, like Dennis, is a narcissistic, scheming cad, here out to use his students to gain revenge on the former colleague who took his coveted position, but with some of Dennis’ most abrasive — to say genuinely unsettling — edges sanded down. (There’s no way Dennis Reynolds could have stayed employed at any self-respecting high school packed with innocent underage kids.) Sunny soldiered on, Day, McElhenney, and a resurgent writers room stretching to fill the Dennis-shaped void in the Gang’s dynamic. (McElhenney’s still deeply closeted Mac orders a terrifyingly realistic Dennis-molded sex doll for the purpose in the season premiere — it goes exactly how you'd imagine.)
A.P. Bio lasted for four moderately acclaimed seasons, first on NBC and then farmed out to Peacock, with Howerton singled out for his performance, even if Sunny fans regarded Jack Griffin as Dennis Lite. When Howerton left Sunny, he also left enough daylight for a possible return, with Howerton and Dennis indeed appearing in six of Season 13’s 10 episodes, albeit without Howerton returning to the writing staff. Working concurrently on both series, Howerton gradually edged back into the Sunny fold, directing a pair of Season 13 episodes and returning to the writers room full time for the 14th. Dennis’ reappearance at Paddy’s after his dramatic renunciation of the Gang largely hand-waved his grand plan for a new, presumably less-malicious life, the show reabsorbing the actor and character with a seamless inevitability.
Howerton wasn’t alone in pursuing outside-Philly interests, naturally. While DeVito continued to be DeVito in Hollywood, Charlie Day became something of a comedy movie star in the Horrible Bosses films and elsewhere, Kaitlin Olson took her own parallel sitcom lead in Fox’s short-lived but very funny The Mick, and McElhenney famously went in on a Welsh football club alongside pal Ryan Reynolds, resulting in the well-regarded reality series Welcome to Wrexham and teaming with Day and Sunny scribe Megan Ganz to create the tech world sitcom Mythic Quest.
Meanwhile, Howerton continued to send out feelers for non-Sunny projects, appearing in FX’s darkly comic Fargo adaptation, Don Cheadle’s House of Lies, and other roles where the classically trained actor could show off his range. Having attained a Fine Arts degree from Juilliard’s prestigious Drama Division before the Sunny days, Howerton’s frustrations with being so inextricably identified with a single TV character chafed. That’s not a new phenomenon, certainly. Many actors have found themselves locked into roles they feel they’ve outgrown, or that the project they’d signed onto had declined so far in quality as to turn them into two-dimensional presences in the public consciousness.
Think Bruce Willis becoming a movie star partway through Moonlighting, yet being contractually obligated to slog through that hit show’s increasingly patchwork two seasons. Or Jim Parsons weighing the balance of a $50 million payday against two more seasons of “Bazinga!” And Shelley Long deciding that she’d given all the depth she could to her breakout role as Cheers’ Diane Chambers right at the height of the NBC sitcom’s popularity. Upon leaving the show, Howerton was quoted as saying that he’d never set out to be a comedic actor, that he wanted to pursue other roles, and that he thought Season 12 should be Sunny’s last.
For Howerton, however, the fact that It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia was not only enduringly popular and remunerative, but also critically adored presented him with a unique dilemma. (The fact that the Sunny cast are all genuinely close to each other personally as well as professionally only complicates things further.) If Sunny was increasingly feeling like a trap for Howerton, it was a particularly luxurious one, complete with legions of adoring (not to say possessive) fans and a never-ending stream of praise for his work as the bottomlessly self-obsessed Dennis. When you create your own dissatisfaction by embodying one of the most indelible characters in TV history, detractors will call any complaints disloyal. And, as anyone who’s ever reviewed It’s Always Sunny professionally can tell you, Sunny fans are not above getting disproportionately vocal whenever the series is under perceived threat.
Which brings us to Blackberry, something of a fact-based Halt and Catch Fire, with the shorn and Gordon Gecko-tailored Jim Balsillie as a real-life analogue of that AMC series’s charismatic visionary Joe MacMillan (as played magnetically by Lee Pace). Seen first in AMC’s extended version getting canned from his executive Vice President position after steamrolling his boss’s high-powered meeting through over-ambition, Howerton’s Balsillie has more than a little Dennis Reynolds in him on the surface. Barely listening to the fumbling pitch from eventual Blackberry inventors Mike Lazaridis (a white-haired Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (director Matt Johnson) in favor of plotting to steal the spotlight in that ill-fated merger meeting, Howerton’s Balsillie is all pent-up rage and impatient ego. (The timid inventors are suitably cowed by their first sight of Basillie, exploding at a coworker for spilling coffee on his impeccable ’90s office wear.)
Throughout the film, this Basillie (who the actual Jim Basillie has affectionately teased as “95% made up”) is a hair-trigger tyrant, quickly seizing control of Lazaridis and Fregin’s meager, strip mall-situated company Research in Motion and its video game-playing gaggle of programmers. Bullying his way into a partnership and immediately sizing up how the nerdy and protective Fregin’s movie nights and laissez-faire office leadership is holding the brilliant but halting Lazaridis back, Howerton’s new boss hijacks meetings, hurls equipment, and, in one memorable tirade upon learning that the now-successful Blackberry’s network has melted down, demolishing a public pay phone in a red-faced rampage Dennis Reynolds would be proud of.
And that’s truly the only quibble with Howerton’s canny and powerful performance in Blackberry — he’s made it impossible to watch his Balsillie build up into a thundering anger without waiting for Dennis Reynolds to come storming out. Otherwise, there are shades to this real-life portrayal that would do credit to any proven dramatic A-lister you could imagine in the role. (Indeed, upon reading Matt Johnson’s script, Howerton recalls reacting, “Why are you offering this to me?… Like, why aren’t they getting a massive movie star to do this?”)
Howerton’s missed out on some huge acting brass rings before. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn has gone on record that the role of Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord) was down to Howerton and Chris Pratt, while Star Trek producer Damon Lindelof has said that Howerton nearly beat out Chris Pine for the 2009 reboot film’s James T. Kirk. And while those tentpole franchise juggernauts carry their own typecasting perils, it's undeniable that such high-profile, humor-tinged blockbusters would have both suited Howerton’s skills and springboarded him into the Hollywood A-list.
Will Blackberry do that? The film, and especially Howerton’s performance as Balsillie, are generating significant awards buzz, something of a coup already for a modest Canadian production. (Apart from Baruchel and Johnson, look for turns from Canada all-pros like Saul Rubinek and Michael Ironside.) And Howerton is magnetic as the driven, abrasive, and bull-headed executive. (It makes perfect sense that Basillie’s third act distraction from Blackberry’s growing financial and technical crises comes from his obsessively unsuccessful pursuit of NHL team ownership). Howerton possesses the leading man’s capacity to glare people into submission, all while his Balsillie must constantly and subtly convey the insecurities dogging his Harvard Business School bravado. (The fact that Balsillie’s last name — whose pronunciation he repeatedly corrects as “BASS-illie” — is so easily weaponized into the emasculating “Balls-silly” registers on Howerton’s face every time like a slap.)
Ultimately, Howerton’s role is a supporting one, but the sort of supporting role someone so adept at channeling outsized characters can truly feast upon. There’s phone-smashing and intermittent irate monologues, yes (Balsillie’s jaw-dropping response to being blackballed by the NHL board is one for the ages), but Howerton slots his Jim Balsillie ably alongside other scene-stealing, titan of industry roles as those played by the likes of Michael Douglas in Wall Street or the four-headed financial dynamo of The Big Short (Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt.) And while the $5 million-budgeted Blackberry couldn’t finance a Marvel or Star Trek flick’s catering, Jim Balsillie is perhaps a more fortunate breakout role for the now 47-year-old Howerton than a franchise-toting space jockey. (Fans of Howerton in space will have to settle for his early role as an ill-fated settler spared from a terrible fate by Nathan Fillion’s mercy bullet in 2005’s Serenity.)
It’s Always Sunny’s recently concluded — and typically excellent — 16th season ended with the Howerton-centric “Dennis Takes a Mental Health Day,” the sort of one-man star turn episode seemingly designed to allow the actor to stretch his performing muscles even within Sunny’s grubbily hilarious and seemingly never-to-end confines. (The show is renewed through at least Season 18.) It’s a balance that the show will have to strike more often, one imagines, as Blackberry’s critical success suggests that Glenn Howerton’s performer’s dreams of having it all may finally be coming true.
Blackberry’s extended cut is streaming on AMC+.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance entertainment writer with bylines at The A.V. Club, Paste, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Portland Press Herald, and elsewhere.
TOPICS: Glenn Howerton