October 02, 2008

Flash of Genius

I'm living in a van down by the river

Grade: B –

Director: Marc Abraham

Starring: Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney, and Alan Alda

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours

The typical David-Goliath story seldom troubles itself with such pesky questions as “At what price victory?” since cost of defeat is usually so much higher. Nevertheless, this query lies at the heart of the parable of Robert Kearns in Flash of Genius. The true life account of one man’s lone stand against the corporate giant who wronged him reads like low hanging, Capra-esque fruit ripe for Hollywood’s picking.

The narrative is irresistible: in the early 1960s, Kearns (Greg Kinnear), an engineer, university professor, and part-time inventor, perfected an electrical process for intermittent windshield wipers in automobiles. After applying for patents, he demonstrated his invention for eager engineers at the Ford Motor Co., who initially agreed to purchase motors from Kearns to install in their cars. Ford soon rebuffed Kearns’ offer only to come out with their separate version of intermittent wipers soon thereafter. Upon inspection, Kearns discovered that Ford’s electrical wiper design was identical to his process.

So began decades of legal wrangling that would consume Kearns’ for the remainder of his life. It is easy to sympathize with such a figure and cheer his single-minded quest for justice, and Philip Railsback’s script invites you to do just that, all the way through the clich├ęd courtroom climax. But, when Kearns begins to rebuff increasingly lucrative offers to settle his lawsuit, despite the pleadings of his first attorney (Alan Alda) and his wife (Lauren Graham), a different perspective begins to come into focus.

When the attorney explains that “money is how justice is dispensed in this country,” the declaration comes across as sage truth instead of the blind motive of a greedy attorney. After all, Kearns’ primary impetus for developing and marketing his wiper invention was the opportunity to profit off it, thereby securing he and his family’s financial wellbeing. By rejecting million dollar settlement offers, does not Kearns’ sense of “justice” morph from altruistic to selfish? Kearns is not quixotic in the classic sense – he does slay a corporate giant or two whilst jousting legal windmills. But, his fixation on cockeyed idealism over practicality assumes an added dimension when the ideal and practical are both honorable and mutually exclusive. While Kearns eventually earns much of the professional vindication he desires, he also loses his family and, at times, his sanity.

Helmer Marc Abraham seems to recognize this subtext, but the long-time producer – but first-time director – seems simply incapable of amplifying it with a murky, often bland presentation along with cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s murky, lifeless visuals. In contrast, Steve Zaillian’s A Civil Action, in many ways Flash of Genius’ fraternal twin, is a flawed film that at least had the wisdom to embrace its protagonist’s righteous folly. And, one needn’t image what a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese could forge out of this sort of tragic character arc; just pop in a DVD of Raging Bull or even The Aviator.

Even the ever improving Kinnear suffers in an otherwise fine performance. For all his recent success, Kinnear has yet to be pushed outside his acting comfortable zone. Flash of Genius presents his best chance to date to do so, but it, like the film itself, turns out to be a squandered opportunity.

Neil Morris

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