FLASH OF GENIUSPG-13
Just when you thought that Hollywood had run out of inspirational true stories to transform into fall season Oscar bait, along comes Flash of Genius, a movie that tries to make moviegoers shed tears over—believe it or not—windshield wipers. Well, okay, the wipers themselves aren't the actual heroes of the film. That honor falls to Robert Kearns (played by Greg Kinnear), an eccentric engineering professor and inventor who created the world's first set of intermittent windshield wipers in the early 1960s. Prior to Kearns' invention, all wipers operated at a constant speed regardless of weather conditions. What was needed was a system that allowed the cleaning blades to pause between wipes, keeping the driver's field of vision temporarily clear.
Although engineers at the nation's top auto companies were already working on creating such a device, Kearns was the first person to crack it and he did so from his own garage. After shopping his invention around, he struck a deal with Ford, only to be informed a few months later that they wouldn't need his so-called "Blinking Eye" wipers after all. But when a new wave of Ford cars rolled off the assembly line sporting similar intermittent wipers, Kearns smelled a rat and filed a patent-infringement lawsuit. The ensuing legal battle lasted well over a decade, and while Kearns eventually won his day in court—and the case itself—he lost his wife, his teaching job and, temporarily, his sanity in the process.
Clearly, Kearns' life story has all the makings of a classic David vs. Goliath tale, where the plucky little guy takes on the system in the face of overwhelming odds and triumphs. It's one of Hollywood's favorite formulas, which is ironic when you remember that the major studios are, more often than not, Goliaths rather than Davids. But merely summarizing this story is one thing—translating it into a three-act dramatic structure is quite another. And that's precisely where Flash of Genius fails to ignite.
As filtered through screenwriter Philip Railsback's pen, Kearns' extraordinary life is rendered…well, ordinary. Part of the problem is that Railsback and producer-turned-first-time director Marc Abraham (whose producing credits include Bring It On and Children of Men) are reluctant to explain the actual science behind Kearns' invention. Sure, Flash of Genius isn't trying to be an industrial film for car nuts, but there has to be a better way of showing Kearns at work beyond cutting to a music-filled montage every time he enters his lab. If we don't really understand what makes his invention unique, it's hard to feel invested in his fight to reclaim what's been taken from him.
Kearns’ family life is dramatized in an equally perfunctory fashion. As the inventor's long-suffering wife Phyllis, Lauren Graham (who has yet to find a movie role as memorable as her seven-year run as one of The WB's "Gilmore Girls) is forced to play only two emotions—adoring and concerned—and a subplot involving Kearns' estranged relationship with his eldest son is resolved so quickly and cleanly, it may as well have never existed in the first place.
Flash of Genius only starts to click once the filmmakers own up to the fact that Kearns' intermittent wipers are little more than the MacGuffin that drives the story to the big courtroom showdown, where they can really let their David loose to deliver verbal body blows to the faceless Goliath known as the Ford Motor Company. The trial sequence occupies the film's final half-hour and is filled with the kind of populist rhetoric that will resonate well with moviegoers, particularly in these troubled economic times. In fact, the audience at the screening I attended burst out into spontaneous applause more than once, most notably during a scene where Kearns uses a copy of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities to score points off a snooty scientist.
Kinnear's low-key performance pays off during this section of the movie. Having spent the previous 90 minutes watching him keep his emotions mostly in check, we're primed for him to come out swinging. Fortunately, the actor avoids going overboard on the courtroom theatrics, instead establishing a quiet confidence (mixed with a dash of desperation) that proves very appealing. As effective as the courtroom scenes may be, however, they ultimately aren't enough to rescue Flash of Genius from mediocrity.