03 October 2008

Flash of Genius

Flash of Genius

Were it fiction, Flash of Genius would be a hard movie to wrap your head around. But that’s a problem it doesn’t have to face and its true story, filmed and acted with great skill, has an uncommon poignancy.

In 1967, Dr. Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), a college professor, family man and part-time inventor, creates and patents what would seem to be the most mundane of inventions — the intermittent windshield wiper.He takes the invention to Ford, which immediately strikes a deal with him and brings him on as a consultant. Eighteen months later, the deal is off.

A few years go by before Kearns sees a car—a Ford—with windshield wipers obviously using his “Kearns Blinking Eye Motor.” Without hesitation, he takes on the daunting task of suing the Ford Motor Company for patent infringement.

The legal fight comes to define Kearns’ life. It is not about money—he turns down plenty of that. He seeks recognition and justice, not just for himself but for countless other inventors whose ideas have been stolen, their hard work made meaningless. It puts tremendous strain on his relationship with his wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham), and six children. Even his sanity is in jeopardy.

Under the steady hand of first-time director March Abraham and with a screenplay by Philip Railsback based on a New Yorker article by John Seabrook, Flash of Genius is noteworthy for its remarkable subtlety and refusal to manipulate the audience’s emotions. It easily could have paraded Kinnear in front of the camera with one melodramatic courtroom speech after another and reduced Graham to histrionics.

Instead, Abraham mostly keeps to the facts and lets the viewer’s reaction—whatever it might be—come about naturally.

Kinnear, as he has done repeatedly in movies like The Matador and Little Miss Sunshine, takes a seemingly broad character and finds the complexity and humanity in him, warts and all. Similarly, Graham shows us the soul of what, in a lesser movie, would be the bland, thankless role of “the wife.” We can see and sympathize with both sides in their relationship.

The supporting cast includes strong work by Dermot Mulroney as a friend of Kearns who initially partners with him to take his invention to Ford and Alan Alda as Kearns’ attorney.

On the surface, Flash of Genius does not seem to be possessed of such rich material, making it a hard sell. But ultimately, it’s a crowd-pleaser about a man and family who deserve to have their story told. That it has been told so effectively makes it all the better.

Grade: A

(Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 119 minutes.)

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