There was a time when Ingenious was known as Lightbulb. Given the film's subject matter, the original moniker was much more fitting than the bland, generic title it ended up with. This is a rags to riches story that builds upon the idea that a spark in the dark is sometimes all one needs to turn one's life around. It is a simple tale of a man and the moment of inspiration that ultimately pulled him out of the hole he had dug himself into.
The man is Matt (Dallas Roberts) and at the film's outset, he's a novelty watch salesman. Along with his pal, Sam (Jeremy Renner), he tries to sell cute themed watches to pet stores and golf pro shops. The watches themselves are clever in a kitschy sort of way but they aren't selling very well because Matt doesn't have the resources to give them the marketing push they require. A few ill-advised attempts at raising capital through gambling earn him the ire of his wife Gina (Ayelet Zurer). Not helping matters is Sam who is often the one giving the ill advice. After Matt runs afoul of a shark in a suit played by Richard Kind, things spiral out of control. With his personal and professional life in utter shambles, he gives up on his dream of being an inventor. Of course, just as he does so, the perfect idea presents itself to him.
I would love to tell you what Matt's big invention is but the buildup and reveal is such an invigorating moment in the film that I don't dare spoil it here by just blurting it out. It's still a goofy idea but sort of great in a way that makes you wonder why you didn't think of it first. The film is based on a true story (the story of writer/producer Mike Cram in fact) and the invention will be instantly recognizable to you when you see it. There's a strong possibility you own one or know someone who does. But the amazing thing is, that's almost beside the point. Despite having a ubiquitous invention at its core, this is Matt's story first and foremost. The gadget may prove to be his agent of redemption but it is the redemption itself that gives the film its narrative weight.
I've talked up Matt quite a bit but this is hardly a one man show. Sam and Gina are instrumental in his growth and ultimate success, albeit in very different ways. Sam is the king of bad ideas but Renner (in a performance that came around the same time as his breakout role in The Hurt Locker) plays him with such energy and conviction that you almost believe that his next harebrained scheme will be the one. One could see how Matt would fall under his sway. At the other end of the spectrum of reason is Gina who supports her husband's career as a professional dreamer. She sees the value in his ideas when everybody else is looking at him sideways. Both Sam and Gina have character arcs of their own with Sam's fast-talking bravado slowly slipping away and Gina learning how to assert her independence.
With such strong characters propping him up at various points in the film, it would be easy to peg Matt as a supporting player in his own story. While this especially rings true in the first half of the film, I would argue that the effect is intentional. Dallas Roberts' subtle portrayal of Matt shows him as a man prone to being easily influenced by others (like the well-meaning but dumb Sam or the conniving executive played by Richard Kind). He takes lump after lump before accepting some uncomfortable truths about himself (in a touching scene where Renner's sudden silence speaks volumes). After Matt has lost everything, he doesn't necessarily turn into a man of action but he certainly recognizes what is important to him in life.
While the cast is uniformly great, a good deal of credit for the warmth and honesty on screen has to go to writer Mike Cram and director Jeff Balsmeyer. Apparently Cram wrote the film based on his own experience as an inventor of gadgets (including the one Matt eventually dreams up), proceeded to watch a ton of small independent films and then hand-picked Balsmeyer after liking his work on Danny Deckchair. This sort of unflagging conviction is key to the entrepreneurial spirit that drives our protagonists past the many pitfalls they encounter. In some ways, the film is quite predictable (the whole ‘true rags-to-riches story' is a dead giveaway) but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable. This is a small-scale ode to the human spirit that accomplishes what it sets out to do.