ingenious

By Don Shanahan
 
(Image: cinema.critictoo.com)
INGENIOUS-- 4 STARS

Official Website 

What many moviegoers don't see while standing in line for popcorn at big multiplex movie theaters awaiting a nine-figure budgeted blockbuster film is that, for every one of those colossal movies, as many as a hundred smaller and more independent films are made every year.  Out of those hundred independent films for every one blockbuster, dozens never see the light of a projector lens at a public movie theater.  Their ideas strike out or never catch fire.  Some of those independent movies might get noticed, screen at a few small film festivals, generate a little buzz, win some small awards, and extend their life to DVD, Blu-ray, or Netflix.  The really lucky ones have something that gets talked about, strike it big, get a major studio's backing, show up as Oscar contenders in the winter, become "critic's darlings," and turn into the kind of movie that you feel cool for knowing at the water cooler at work.

The wild card dynamic of independent film is their intention.  Independent filmmakers are the truest form of cinematic artists in the wide expanse of the movie business.  Most of them aren't in it for money, fame, and luster.  Some just want to stay true and share their great story of artistic expression.  They create the movie version of a "labor of love."  If they get noticed along the way, it's a bonus, but not the chief goal. 

That's the simple beauty of a film like Ingenious.  The filmmakers and performers here are doing it for the storytelling more than their bank accounts.  They feel they have a story the deserves to be seen.  Filmed mostly in Tucson, Arizona and based on a true story of the American Dream in action, Ingenious offers a funny and entertaining slice-of-life story that leaves out the melodrama and fills its story, and us the audience, with engaging inspiration and spirit.  Sure, other bigger movies have won acclaim with unbelievable rags-to-riches stories with bigger stakes that provoke tears and heartache.  On many levels, those films overdo it.  Ingenious is a film for the common man, like you and me, who would rather smile and seek optimism than wallow in despair.

Written by first-time screenwriter Matt Cram and directed by Jeff Balsmeyer (in just his second feature film after the little-seen Danny Deckchair from 2003), Ingenious tells the story of a pair of best friends, Matt and Sam, hoping to strike it big coming up with and selling a must-have product (not unlike the makers of the film itself).  Dallas Roberts (most recently ofThe Grey, TV's The Good Wife, and 3:10 to Yuma) stars as Matt, the lead brains of the operation.  He's the grassroots inventor of the two and the man with the passion and dedication.  He's also lucky in love with his flight attendant wife, Gina (Ayelet Zurey, most notably from Angels and Demons, Vantage Point, Munich, and soon to be seen in next summer'sMan of Steel), who sometimes reluctantly stands by the highs and lows of his dreams.  Sam, played by rising superstar and two-time Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, The Town, The Hurt Locker, The Bourne Legacy), is the feverish salesman of the two.  While Matt is the compass, Sam is the twice-divorced rabble-rouser that possesses the spirit, balls, and impatience of the group.  Both are the kind of friends that get each other in trouble, especially with gambling.

Matt and Sam are partners with International Gifts, a fledgling Tuscon company with just two other employees (including Eddie Jemison of the Oceans Eleven series).  Their current line of product ideas, novelty watches based on dogs, golf, and the lottery, have been absolute duds at product shows and financial strikeouts for the small volume they can sell compared to the money they've sunk into them.  To make matters worse, there's a slimy and flashy TV sales exec (Richard Kind, formerly of TV's Spin City) poised to steal their profits and maybe even their ideas.  After failed sales, cashed-out favors, and gambling losses, Matt and Sam have to close the company and settle for regular jobs.  In the process of hitting rock bottom, Gina leaves Matt and takes a little bit of his passion with him.  Both men, even while down, still hold out hope that the one big product idea (I'll leave that revelation for you to discover) that can redeem them is out there.

Ingenious tells this true rags-to-riches story with a personable touch and realistic scale.  Dallas Roberts and Jeremy Renner play a pair of extremely relatable guys and have outstanding chemistry together as characters and actors.  Roberts sets the pace with a strong lead performance and a good voice-over that lets you in on his character's mantras and motivations.  Renner, in a rare comedic role, shows ten times the personality and charm from what we have become accustomed of seeing from him in serious action movies and thrillers like The Hurt Locker or The Bourne Legacy.  This trip to lighter fare for him is brilliant and something that no big director has tapped yet.  Together, they set the tone for a movie that tells a realistic and believable story of the American Dream. 

Using a subtle soundtrack from Arizona musician Howe Gelb, Ingenious doesn't need or resort to triumphant and bombastic string music that normally accompanies big movie redemption stories.  Bathed in the Arizona sun across 35mm film, the movie looks fantastic and keeps its subject and setting local and connected.  As I mentioned earlier, any need for tearful melodrama is replaced by the gumption and optimism towards the plight of the self-made man.  That endearing quality soars at its own speed in Ingenious and makes for solid and genuine feel-good entertainment. 

The producers of Ingenious have something special here with the potential to be great, but, like so many independent films, it's been hard to get things off the ground.  Made in 2009, Ingenious was the Opening Night Film for both the Cleveland and Jerusalem Film Festivals and the Closing Night Film for Santa Barbara Film Festival.  So far, its greatest honor is winning Best Picture at the Phoenix Film Festival.  Let's hope this movie can finally garner a wider audience.  This "labor of love" more than deserves it.  For more on this film's story (and even a chance for you to get involved), read on after the lessons.

LESSON #1: LITTLE GUYS WITH BIG IDEAS-- Ingenious really speaks to the folks out there with non-stop ideas and dreams.  They are our friends who are the thinkers, the scribblers, the Pinterest sharers, the tinkerers, and the amateur do-it-yourself specialists.  They are more than just the ranter we know who starts sentences with "You know what I would do..."   The real ones follow through with their ideas and take it beyond just the idea stage. 

LESSON #2: TRYING TO STRIKE IT RICH-- Those little guys with the big ideas are one level of people that embody the good, old-fashioned American Dream.  Ingenious's Matt and Sam are two guys that want to set the world on fire and, coupled with their gambling issues, see dollar signs as the measure of success and opportunity.  They may be a little greedy at times, but all they really want is to better their lives and stamp their own ticket as self-made men.

LESSON #3: HITTING ROCK BOTTOM-- Through Matt and Sam, we learn the downs that go with the ups-and-downs of business.  We see the failed ideas, errors in salesmanship, total loss, and, most detrimentally, the financial stress that follows people away from work.  These downs have causes as well as cures.  In getting that low, our guys are humbled by what's really important and never lose the drive to keep their hope and dreams going.

LESSON #4: ALL IT TAKES IS ONE-- The flip-side of the downs of Lesson #3 are the ups represented by success.   In the business of original ideas and inventions, all it takes is one really successful idea to make all the hard work and previous failure worth it.  It only takes one big one to make dreams come reality.  Just ask the inventors of the Frisbee and the Hula Hoop.  The true story that Ingenious is based on is just one more chapter in that long novel of self-made American success stories.


For those of you who follow this website and my published writing on Examiner.com, hopefully you've seen me write and report on this excellent film's story and my involvement in being able to screen and support this film in advance.  Producer Brian Neufang of the Santa Barbara-based Arriba Films, LLC and his partners are striving to maintain Ingenious's independent creative control and ensure its theatrical release without major studio backing and distribution.  To make this happen, they have turned to donor support at Kickstarter.  If you are a fan and supporter of independent film and donor-supported projects, I highly recommend visiting their cause page and seeing their full story firsthand.  It's been an absolute pleasure to be a small part of something special like this and I hope this review only helps spread the word about this excellent film further.