A terrific little yarn about pluck, perseverance and friendship overcoming the odds, “Lightbulb” is exactly what’s needed in these troubled times. The reality-based story of two struggling inventors and their eventual, improbable success, this second feature from Jeff Balsmeyer could — with careful, deliberate marketing — tap into the current Zeitgeist and emerge an indie success story. But despite its winning conceit and can-do-spirit, the pic faces an uphill battle, since its cast, though impeccable, has no marquee value as yet.
Producer-scribe Mike Cram based the film on his own experience, and indeed, his real-life invention bankrolled the project. The device itself, a novelty item so preposterous you’d think it was a joke, isn’t really Cram’s concern, however. He, like Balsmeyer, is focused on the film’s central characters and the ways in which their relationships endure despite poor judgments, broken promises and repeated failures.
Balsmeyer seems to be making a specialty of movies about wacky, original thinkers with impossible dreams, having previously helmed the underrated “Danny Deckchair,” a far more fanciful but equally optimistic fable.
Cram’s writing displays smart instincts. Wisely, he’s broken down his own persona into two characters: Matt (Dallas Roberts) and Sam (Jeremy Renner), who’ve managed to run their Tucson, Ariz.-based invention company into the ground through a succession of off-the-wall ideas. Renner and Roberts are sublimely cast: Their naturalistic friendship anchors the picture and renders it a buddy movie of surprising depth.
After more than a decade of false starts and ill-fated trips to the betting track, Sam and Matt think they’ve finally scored. But when their latest gimmick, an animated dog watch, is pillaged by an unscrupulous rival (a perfect Richard Kind), and its successor, an automated lottery watch, is a dud, the guys seem doomed to arrive at middle age awash in failed dreams. Even worse, Matt’s long-suffering wife Gina (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, upcoming in “Angels and Demons”) has left him, having worn through the last of her bank account — and her patience.
But “Lightbulb” is nothing if not optimistic, and its message of tenacity in the face of ridiculous odds pays off when Matt comes up with one last inspiration: a talking beer opener. After enlisting Sam to help develop the prototype — and eventually, a surprise third partner to front some cash — they take the gadget to a major tradeshow, where it suddenly soars. Skeptics, take note: Said device has apparently become the second biggest-selling novelty item (after the hula hoop) in the U.S.
Perhaps that wildly improbable statistic is what renders “Lightbulb” a uniquely American movie. For a country steeped in Horatio Alger mythology and still aglow from a certain “Yes We Can” success story, this seems a fitting moment for such a reminder. However, its universal themes and flawed, human characters will resonate with audiences regardless of nationality.
What sets “Lightbulb” apart, and what keeps it aloft, is its tone, which privileges populist wit and wisdom over sappy self-indulgence. It’s a seriocomic story in which ill-advised actions can and do have dire consequences, but persistence, humility and good humor ultimately find their own reward; a lean, economical indie film that, in the end, is its own best example.
Tech elements are OK, though the sound mix could use a polish (and apparently is not final). Kudos to Geoffrey Hall’s lensing, which takes fine advantage of the Arizona desert’s golden hour. Thesping is top-drawer across the board, right down to the supporting players, including Eddie Jemison as a dedicated office worker and Judith Scott as a sympathetic flight attendant.