Review: Ingenious

[Ingenious is trying to raise money for a theatrical release via Kickstarter. If you feel like pitching in, the official page can be found here.]

There aren’t enough good “buddy” movies. Friendship is probably one of the most important things in a person’s life, but it also seems like filmmakers aren’t very good at translating that to the silver screen. Obviously if the characters aren’t good the connection won’t be there, but it goes beyond that. Every once in a while I see a movie that focuses on a friendship (even if it’s not about that friendship), and I think, “Damn, I wish I had a friendship like that.”

Ingenious is one of those movies.

Director: Jeff Balsmeyer
Release Date: TBD
Rating: R

Because Ingenious is based on a true story, it’s basically guaranteed from the beginning that things will turn out okay in the end. A story about two failed inventors who continued to fail and never got anywhere isn’t interesting. That’s not a story worth telling. There are thousands upon thousands of those stories, and none of them will get movies. So for Ingenious to exist, the protagonists must eventually do something right. But it’s also true that nobody wants to watch a story about two inventors who succeeded from the outset. It can be cool to watch a small town inventor skyrocket to success, but there’s nothing relateable about instantaneous success. Audiences want people they can connect to. They want flawed characters who have to hit rock bottom before pulling themselves up by their bootstraps for their shot at redemption. So I knew that the protagonists of Ingenious were going to make it out okay, but that didn’t make watching the hurdles they had to overcome any easier.

Matt (Dallas Roberts) and Sam (Jeremy Renner) are salesmen/entrepreneurs who run a novelty shop called International Gifts. There’s a third member of their team, Bean (Eddie Jemison), but for the most part he’s kind of irrelevant. I never really figured out what his role was, although I imagine it was probably a bit more significant in the real world than it was portrayed in the film. Nonetheless, Matt and Sam are not particularly successful at what they do. It seems like Matt is the primary ideas man where Sam is some kind of support as well as a salesman. It’s not clear how many failed inventions they’d made, but by the reactions of Matt’s wife throughout the film, the number seems to be pretty high. That being said, beyond a very short montage with a couple of items, there’s not much to be said. Instead, it focuses on three inventions: a dog watch, a lottery watch, and the final invention that actually worked out for them. 

Ingenious film

Ingenious gives a look into the business behind novelty toys, and it’s surprisingly interesting. Did you know that there are novelty gift expos? I didn’t, but there are. A number of them, in fact. And the film also shows a little bit about the process of getting a product into that coveted “As Seen on TV” spot. I imagine that, with the rise of the internet, this story would play out differently in a more modern context, but I imagine that at least some of the lessons are applicable across the ages. There are also a few other things that come up, but unfortunately one that seemed pretty interesting (a knock-off lawsuit) disappears. That’s probably a function of the actual situation, but it seemed like something that the Matt and Sam were planning to pursue. There were a lot of “maybe”s involved in the situation, and a simple “No” at some point would have provided some closure that I felt the film lacked.

On that note, the use of supporting characters is sometimes strange, and there were times where characters disappeared for large sections of the film before reappearing as though nothing had ever happened. The most obvious example of this was in the form of Cinda (Marguerite Moreau). It seems like she and Sam are dating for a large portion of the film, but then things turn south and she literally disappears. No “We broke up” or even a “She’s on vacation.” She just stops being in the movie. But then she reappears at the end, and she and Sam are still together. It’s hardly a story-killing problem, but ignoring her entirely for so long just seemed kind of mean, if nothing else. 

Convention in Ingenious

As I said earlier, Ingenious has an excellent portrayal of the friendship between Matt and Sam. The two of them have known each other for twenty years, and they’ve been through a lot together. The film doesn’t focus on their past, though, and that past is only alluded to occasionally. Instead it deals with how they react to their current predicament. Matt’s main vice is gambling, and it has caused major relationship problems in the past. Those problems continue, and Sam is a terrible influence, convincing Matt to spend thousands of dollars of loaned money at the Black Jack table. 

But when push comes to shove, Matt and Sam are always there for each other. Their (sometimes) witty banter, their actions, their everything just feels natural and real. Sam’s hot-headed nature may do the pair more bad than good, but he still clearly cares about Matt, and Matt clearly cares about him, which makes watching what they do all the more enjoyable. Honestly, the movie could probably still work without such fleshed-out characters. Their motivation is a good one, an American one. They’re trying to live the American Dream, and it makes them almost instantly worth rooting for. Their personalities and interesting quirks only help to make them characters you want to see succeed. Ingenious starring more generic protagonists might still be a film worth seeing, although I doubt I could highly recommend it.

Jeremy Renner and Dallas Roberts

But Ingenious starring Matt and Sam is something I can absolutely recommend. There is a lot to like here, and I enjoyed watching the pair as they persevered. When success finally came, as I knew it would, it just worked. I was happy for them, and I was happy in general. The film put me in a good mood, which is not an effect that comes from many of the films I see these days. Perhaps I just need to start watching more uplifting movies, but that’s beside the point. Sure it has some missteps here and there, and the lack of closure on various plot points is mildly frustrating, but in the grand scheme of things none of that really matters. What matters are Matt, Sam, and their attempts to change the world, one novelty toy at a time.