Friday, Oct. 3, 2008

Flash of Genius

By David Luhrssen
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There’s a scene near the beginning of Flash of Genius that neatly and amusingly speaks volumes about its protagonist, Dr. Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear). One night the electrical engineering instructor at a Detroit college is confronted by his sexy wife Phylis (Lauren Graham). She is in a negligee and in the mood. His focus is elsewhere. Kearns excuses himself and goes outside to his car, opens the hood and spends the rest of the night in the intimate company of his windshield wipers.

See, Kearns has wiper blades on the brain. After awhile, he thinks of nothing else.

Flash of Genius concerns the true story of Robert Kearns, whose intermittent variable speed windshield wiper was groundbreaking in the 1960s and is standard equipment on all cars today. Problem: Ford Motors apparently stole his design after he tried to interest the automaker in the prototype. It took nearly a decade for Kearns to win his case against Ford in federal court.

Director Marc Abraham and screenwriter Philip Railsback’s adaptation of the story seems considerably less interesting than the story itself. It looks as if Flash of Genius wanted to be a David and Goliath saga where David went mad with paranoia and frustration—maybe more of a Moby Dick with Kearns as Captain Ahab in pursuit of an elusive white Mustang.

A devoted family man and a good teacher, Kearns was also a faithful Roman Catholic with a very rigid idea of right and wrong. He was wronged, certainly, defrauded of credit for his invention and a fair share of the proceeds. But instead of leaving well enough alone when Ford offered his attorney (a wonderfully slippery Alan Alda) an under-the-table cash settlement, he pursued his case despite the heavy toll it charged on his family, his career and his sanity.

Kinnear is an able star throughout, nervously obsessive even past the point where a focus group apparently stepped in and decided that Flash of Genius was too troubling and insufficiently peppy. Suddenly, his disenchanted children and long suffering separated wife rally around him like a Disney clan rather than a family fractured by their father’s descent into self-involved madness. It might feel good for a few moments, the little guy besting the giant with his sling shot after years of trying, but in this case it also feels phony, a little too easily achieved.

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