Flash of Genius

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/03/08 00:18:38

"Intermittent Excitement"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Watching “Flash of Genius” is a lot like reading a really long feature story in “The New Yorker” and not just because it is actually based on a really long feature story that originally appeared in “The New Yorker.” The basic premise of the story is interesting enough to hook your interest and keep you involved for a bit but after a while, it begins to bog down a bit and as you continue to plow through it, you begin to realize that this is a story that you have heard many times before and that the telling of this particular take isn’t interesting or compelling enough to separate it from those other versions. The difference, of course, is that while it is easy enough to simply turn to another article or put down the magazine altogether in its print incarnation when you get to that point, you don’t really have that option here unless you physically get up and leave the theater and while “Flash of Genius” may not be very good, it certainly isn’t bad enough to inspire that kind of reaction or any other kind of reaction outside of vague boredom.

The story seems like a straightforward enough David v. Goliath battle between an ordinary guy with a great idea and a corporate behemoth that flat-out steals that idea and refuses to either compensate him or, more importantly, acknowledge that it was his idea in the first place. Our David this time around is Dr. Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), a Detroit college professor/would-be inventor whose burst of inspiration while driving his brood home from church one rainy morning in the early 1960s causes him to develop a working prototype for what would eventually become known as the intermittent windshield wiper. With the support of his family and a local financial backer (Dermot Mulroney--between this and “Burn After Reading,” he is certainly on a roll), he makes plans to open up a factory to manufacture the wipers himself and sell them to one of the big auto manufacturers. He takes his model to Ford and seems to strike a deal with them but not surprisingly, the deal falls through and a few months later, Kearns discovers that the new Ford cars have his wipers as a key feature.

Thus begins a years-long war between Kearns, who wants the money that he is entitled to and, more importantly, acknowledgement that the wiper was indeed his invention, and the auto company, which believes that it can simply wait Kearns out by throwing one legal hurdle after another at him until he finally throws in the title. And yet, despite the abandonment of his wife (a considerable drawback when you consider that she is played by Lauren Graham), the alienation of most of his children and even a short stay in a mental institution, Kearns refuses to give up and at this point, Ford is ready to give him money just to make the entire thing go away for good. However, much to the bafflement of everyone, Kearns has absolutely no interest in the rapidly increasing settlement sums that he is offered--he won’t end the case until Ford admits that they stole from him. Eventually, he literally finds himself standing alone against his corporate oppressors when his case finally lands in court and he serves as his own attorney against all the slick and high-priced lawyers mustered up by Ford who do everything that they can to destroy him. I wouldn’t dream of revealing how it all turns out, except to note that if the case had gone badly for Kearns, we probably wouldn’t be watching a big-screen version of his case right now.

The early scenes of the film, which concentrate almost entirely on the development of the intermittent wiper and Kearns’ giddy belief that his years of tinkering have finally and decisively paid off, are probably the best--partly because they are filled with all sorts of quirky little details that are relatively interesting and partly because debuting director Marc Abraham keeps things humming along at a relatively swift clip. However, once his invention is stole (largely as a result of his naiveté), the film quickly begins to bog down into the kind of ritualized structure that you might find in a Movie of the Week version of the story--the next 30 minutes or so follow the theft and Kearns downward spiral, the next 30 show him finally pulling himself together and putting together a viable case and the final 30 consist of the trial and the lengths that Ford goes to in order to save face for themselves--and even if you have never heard of Kearns before, you can’t shake the sensation that you have seen it all before in a more stylish and entertaining manner than here, most obviously in Francis Ford Coppola’s terribly underrated 1988 docudrama “Tucker: A Man and His Dream.” Perhaps in an attempt to jazz things up, screenwriter Phillip Railsback uses an odd time structure in which we are constantly being hit with title cards announcing “Four Years Earlier” or “Fourteen Months Later” that do not do a very good job of demonstrating the length of time it took Kearns to finally get justice.

The performances are also familiar in this respect. Kinnear does a good job of capturing the gee-whiz spirit of Kearns but seems somewhat lost when it comes to making us believe that his character would really go to such obsessive lengths and essentially destroy his family in order to simply prove an ethical point. Graham is always a charming presence but is saddled with a role that gives her nothing to do for the first half and then ignores her almost completely for the second. The only truly memorable performance--and it is a really good one--is the brief supporting turn from Alan Alda as a big-shot attorney who takes a genuine and idealistic interest in Kearns’ case, does everything he can to hammer out what he believes is a fair settlement under the circumstances and then, when it is rejected, coolly and pragmatically explains the harsh realities of fairness, justice and the law to his balky client. If there is a rule to one-man-against-the-system movies like this, it is that if the wisest and sanest words that are heard come from a lawyer advising the hero to settle, the film as a whole may be in trouble.

“Flash of Genius” is a film that is desperately in search of one--some burst of inspiration that would transform it from the paint-by-numbers inspirational saga that it is into something deeper and better. Alas, that moment never quite arrives and as a result, it eventually becomes hard to care very much about Kearns and his extended struggle. It is nice enough and I suppose that less demanding viewers will find it reasonably uplifting in a sub-Capra sort of way, but anyone looking for anything more is likely to come away from the film feeling vaguely disappointed at its lack of real ambition.

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