An actor so effortlessly charming and endearing that you assume, deep down, he must be harboring some kind of filthy secret, Greg Kinnear has been perfectly cast in “Flash of Genius,” Marc Abraham’s fact-based drama about an all-American family man driven to madness when corporate America tries to take credit for one of his groundbreaking inventions.
Too bad the rest of the movie seems to have been crafted on an assembly line that specializes in inspirational tales of ordinary Davids triumphing over merciless Goliaths. Kinnear gives it his all here, lending dark shadings to a familiar cinematic figure (see Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tucker,” a movie to which this new film owes a vast debt). But Abraham so belabors his central theme, and he’s so determined to put a lump in the viewer’s throat, that he ends up losing sight of what makes the story interesting in the first place.
Based on a New Yorker magazine article by John Seabrook, “Flash of Genius” introduces us to university engineering professor and part-time inventor Bob Kearns (Kinnear), who, in 1962 experiences a lightning bolt: Why, he wonders, can’t automobile windshield wipers operate like the human eyeball, and be designed to wipe intermittently? When Kearns figured out the secret to making this new wiper work, and partnered with a local auto dealer (Dermot Mulroney) to bring the design to Ford, he naturally assumed he’d soon be a millionaire.
Enter the corporate slimeballs, who from the moment they appear on the screen make it clear they are going to try to steal the design. The first hour of “Flash of Genius” is a familiar slog, designed to make the audience sympathize with this earnest soul who just wants to get credit where credit is due. Except no one seems to have told Abraham that Kearns didn’t write “Hamlet” or cure cancer. He created a utilitarian object, one it’s hard to feel any emotion about, and one whose creation is awfully hard to make dramatic.
The bigger problem is that there’s a curious gap between what the movie proclaims it’s about and what Kearns’ life story (and Kinnear’s performance) would seem to reveal. In the second half of “Flash of Genius,” Kearns goes on an almost messianic crusade to get credit for his design and to bring the Ford Motor Company to court.
Forsaking the wishes of his wife (Lauren Graham) and the practical advice of his lawyer (a sterling Alan Alda, whose two scenes here are the very best of the movie), he turns into a bristling, extremely unlikable figure. His arrogant refusal to accept that justice is usually meted out through out-of-court settlements ultimately costs him his family and sends him into the loony bin.
With each successive scene, Kinnear’s performance turns darker and knottier. The actor shows us that just beneath that all-American veneer lurks a man whose ego tramples everything in sight.
The screenplay by Philip Railsback, however, takes Kearns’ side throughout all of this.
It accepts as a given that his decadeslong effort in bringing the case to court was a good thing. But was it? I sat through “Flash of Genius” wishing Kearns would take the million dollar settlements being dangled in front of him and stop his bellyaching.
A better director would have been able to address the moral problems raised by Kearns’ actions — or perhaps used the man’s story (the way Coppola did in “Tucker”) as a metaphor for how artistic creation can sometimes destroy its creator. But Abraham, a longtime producer and studio executive, resists all forms of subtlety. With its square framing and squeaky clean images, “Flash of Genius” looks like a Lifetime movie; and with its periodic pauses to allow the characters to deliver speeches that articulate the theme of the movie, it’s about as complicated as one, also.
By the final 20 minutes, an interminable courtroom showdown in which Kearns represents himself, a potentially terrific lead performance has been sabotaged and the likable supporting cast has drifted into the woodwork. “Flash of Genius” might have been better titled “Not a Shred of Inspiration.”
'Flash of Genius’
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Alan Alda
Behind the scenes: Directed by Marc Abraham
Length: 118 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (strong profanity, adult content)