Flash of Genius
True-life patent-infringement drama not as exciting as genre would lead you to believe
Flash of Genius
Directed by Marc Abraham
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Alan Alda
A true-life biopic about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper? I gotta be honest with you here: It’s hard to not make that sound boring. I’m not even sure Bob Kearns, the guy on which this film is based, would find it a particularly compelling topic. The windshield wiper? Really? Why not a play about the guy who came up with the refrigerator light?
Not to rag on Kearns, who seems to be a bright enough guy, or the producers behind Flash of Genius, who are certainly earnest in their conviction to bring Kearns’ story to light. But this isn’t exactly the most exciting pitch Hollywood has ever heard.
Kearns is played on screen by Greg Kinnear, interpreting the naive nebbish as Joe Schmo Everyman. Let’s set the scene: It’s the late ’60s in Detroit Motor City. Bob, a college engineering prof with a loyal wife (Lauren Graham) and six whole kids, is taking the brood home from church in the middle of a Lake St. Clair downpour. The problem is the fershlugginer windshield wipers, which only have an on/off switch. If only someone had thought to include a “low” setting for light rains. Hold the phone. ... Bingo! Dr. Bob experiences his titular flash of genius.
Getting to work in his garage, Bob soon puzzles out the magical “Kearns Blinking Eye Motor” (perhaps it was the name that eventually sunk him). Taking the device straight to Ford Motor Company, Bob receives an enthusiastic response from the chief executive himself (Mitch Pileggi from “The X-Files”) and figures his family will soon be rolling in dough. Of course, it wouldn’t be a “David vs. Goliath” story if things were that simple. Poor, trusting Bob provides a sample “for the U.S. Safety Board” to examine and is soon shocked to learn that Ford is no longer interested. After stringing him along for several months, the car giant simply announces they’ve developed their own intermittent wiper and don’t need his anymore.
What follows are years of family squabbles, mental meltdowns and legal struggles as Kearns fights to prove that Ford stole his invention. It is, if you dig deep enough, an inspiring sort of story. Kearns was full to bursting with Midwestern gumption. He just got himself hornswoggled by those crafty business tycoon types. And he spent years fighting for much more than just his fair share of the licensing fees—he fought for his personal pride and dignity. Good for you, dude.
Flash of Genius searches for tragedy in Kearns’ life and almost finds it in the dogged inventor’s decade-long fight for justice. The question, you see, is how much Kearns gave up in this fight. He alienated his family, lost his job, spent time in a mental institution and never invented anything else—but he stood up, by gum, to those bastards at Ford! So was Kearns’ victory a Pyrrhic one? Not according to Flash of Genius, which takes several mutiyear jumps through the roughest (and possibly most dramatic) parts of Kearns’ story and wraps up its familiar courtroom wranglings with as much morale-boosting, feel-good cheerleading as possible.
Kinnear puts plenty of well-grounded work into his character, filling the man out with as many naturalistic physical and vocal tics as possible. But Kearns, god bless him and his little windshield thingy, just wasn’t that charismatic a character. The film’s screenplay (based on a New Yorker article by John Seabrook) never pauses long enough to contemplate potentially interesting threads like Kearns’ questionable ego, the exploitative relationship with his business manager (Dermot Mulroney) or the strained relationship with his eldest son (Jake Abel, Strange Wilderness). The film’s visuals don’t add much, either, stuck as they are in early-’70s Detroit, of all places. (It’s all wide, striped ties, plastic stained-glass lamp shades, textured avocado wallpaper and brown wicker living room furniture.) Much as Flash of Genius wants to emulate the dynamic of Francis Ford Coppola’s similar auto industry tale Tucker: The Man and His Dream, it lacks the swanky ’50s style and dramatic conspiracy. Kearns didn’t change the world. Neither will this film. Still, it’s nice, well-meaning and does eliminate that annoying rubbery drag you get across the glass at high speed.