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Flash of Genius (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 03 October 2008
Americans tend to love the underdog—at least in movies and on television. In real life, not so much. There’s no way “Flash of Genius” could ever be a hit; at most, it will be a modest success in theaters as well as on video. It’s so clearly about the (real-life) triumph of an underdog—an inventor takes on the Ford Motor Company. Movies about a little guy taking on a big corporation are almost always going to end with David triumphant over Goliath. Even “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” concluded with Tucker’s ideas winning out, even though the man wasn’t around to see it.

Here, the idea the little guy has seems minor--intermittent automobile windshield wipers—until you realize that now almost all cars have that feature. Professor Robert “Bob” Kearns (played by Greg Kinnear) taught at a small Detroit college, raised six kids, and tried out various inventions, some of which he was able to sell. On his wedding night, he accidentally hit himself in the left with the cork from a bottle of champagne. Now, in the mid-1960s, he wonders why his eye can blink occasionally but windshield wipers can only be on or off. Sometimes you’re driving in a light rain, even mist or heavy fog, that takes a while to obscure your vision, but the only way to deal with it is to leave the wipers on all the time—and between periods of truly wet windows, the wipers drag across the glass in an annoying manner. With the help of a couple of his older sons, he begins tinkering away in his basement, hoping to create an adjustable wiper motor. And he does it.

He’s semi-partners with Gil Previck (Dermot Mulroney), wealthy from dealing with the big automobile manufacturers. They take the wiper to Ford, met first by Frank (Daniel Roebuck), and then by higher-up Mac (Mitch Pileggi), who’s amazed by Kearns’ device. He tells him he’s won the intermittent-wiper race, and asks about unit prices—since Kearns wants to manufacture the devices himself (with his family as the company executives), selling them to Ford, and to other manufacturers.

After he’s already obtained a factory, hired employees and is days away from starting the manufacturing process, Bob is told by Previck that Ford has dropped out of the deal. Bob is stunned but helpless. Less than two years later, he’s stunned to see a Ford car on the rainy road—equipped with intermittent wipers. (He even steals one.) He wants to sue Ford, but Previck, all too aware that his own business depends on playing nice with the big guys, is completely against it. Even Bob’s ordinarily supportive wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) isn’t convinced that a lawsuit is the way to go.
But they turn to big-shot lawyer Gregory Lawson (Alan Alda), who assures them that this is a case he can really get behind. After some time (the movie jumps over long stretches of time, sometimes confusingly), he proudly tells Bob that Ford is willing to evade the lawsuit by a payment of $200,000. But Bob wants them to admit they stole his idea, and refuses to settle. Eventually Lawson drops out of the case and Bob is hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.

When he’s back home again, his family has withdrawn from him somewhat, and eventually Phyllis leaves him altogether. But Bob plugs on.

Ultimately, Kearns did triumph over Ford (and Chrysler), in one of the biggest patent-infringement lawsuit victories in American legal history; it even went to the Supreme Court (though not in this movie). The last third or so of the movie covers his final showdown with Ford; in this, he’s helped by his now-adult son Dennis (Jake Abel), and a few of the other Kearns kids get on board, too.

This is the first movie directed by long-time producer Marc Abraham, and the one of the last written by Philip Railsback, who based his script on a “New Yorker” article about Kearns (who died in 2005). There’s nothing exceptional about “Flash of Genius;” it’s steadfast but not plodding, telling its story in simple, easy-to-swallow form. Kearns must have been an annoying guy in many ways, but he’s presented here as a mostly sweet-natured classic absent-minded professor. The script requires Kinnear, who’s generally quite good, to occasionally mutter and fumble endearingly, which seems unfair to the real Kearns and his family. However, Kinnear mostly wins out over this somewhat condescending view of a guy who was, after all, probably nearly a genius. (If you want to know more about the real Kearns, there’s a website he posted himself before he died:

The movie rests almost entirely on Kinnear’s shoulders. The script doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with Phyllis; she’s mild and understated—even when she’s telling Bob she’s leaving him she can’t seem to work up anything resembling anger. We don’t see very much of the kids, though they’re around long enough to require two sets of actors of divergent ages. Alan Alda’s role is mostly a cameo, but he’s charming and believable nonetheless. Dermot Mulroney’s character seems to betray Bob, but they’re somewhat unaccountably still friendly at the end, though no longer partners. Familiar faces like Mitch Pileggi and Dan Roebuck turn up occasionally, but briefly. Tim Keheller has a peculiar role as a sneaky Ford attorney; we’re practically invited to hiss at him.

The music is humdrum and unimaginative, though it does surprisingly feature Booker T and the MG’s classic “Green Onions.” The production design convincingly covers at least 15 years; costumes and car styles change accordingly, and eventually Kinnear’s hair goes gray.

This is the sort of movie that Hollywood used to turn out regularly back the Olden Days, but which in recent years seem to turn up mostly on television. Though this is handsomely shot in wide screen (mostly in Canada), and it doesn’t overuse closeups, “Flash of Genius” still looks more like a movie made for television than one intended for theaters. It was modestly budgeted, however, and will probably earn back its costs.

“Flash of Genius” is a sturdy but unsurprising movie, reasonably well acted—at times, Kinnear is especially good—and it’s going to get a lot of raised eyebrows for dealing with the court battles over the invention of intermittent windshield wipers. But it’s a true story of how a dedicated, even obsessed, little guy took on the giant Ford Motor Company and brought it to its knees. With the U.S. in its current financial turmoil, maybe we needed to have a movie where big money loses to the guy down the street.

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