Flash of Genius is an incredibly frustrating film, a movie with a great central performance, excellent design, and an entire team whose heart is in the right place, but it's also a movie with a screenplay that never gets to the true heart of this fascinating story. One of the more underrated actors alive, Greg Kinnear, sells Flash of Genius as a David-and-Goliath tale, another case of the little man striving to take down the giant. But there's more to the Bob Kearns story than this Capra-esque film would have you believe. Kearns was as crazy as he was determined. You simply have to be a little nuts to make some of the decisions he did in his quest for justice, and Flash of Genius never really gets under this complex man's skin. It's a crowd-pleaser that buries its lead, choosing to play for sympathy and justice instead of asking complicated questions about the price people are willing to pay for it.
Kinnear perfectly captures Bob Kearns, the Detroit man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Before Bob, your wipers were either on or off, no in between. Using his own eye injury as inspiration, Kearns employed his family to help design the "Blinking Eye Windshield Wiper” and, with the help of a friend (Dermot Mulroney), took his masterful invention to Ford Motors. The biggest car company in Motor City had been working for years on an intermittent wiper but hadn't been able to crack it. They wanted Bob's, but he was very protective of his design and insisted on manufacturing the wipers himself. Ford took a model for analysis and then told Kearns they wouldn't need his manufacturing. Less than two years later, Kearns saw that Ford was including what looked a lot like his invention on their new models. He sued. And, despite several offers for settlements and mountains of paperwork, Kearns wanted nothing more than recognition and would fight until he got it.
Sounds inspiring, right? We could use more men who value things like justice and pride over the almighty dollar. But the fact is that Bob Kearns tore his life apart. His wife left him. He didn't get to see his kids. He lost his job. For over a decade, he battled a company for which time meant nothing and he turned down money that could have changed the lives of his children forever. Was what Bob Kearns did right? There's a case to be made either way, but debut director Marc Abraham puts Kearns on a pedestal. Where are the dark days that you know must have happened in those years when his family left him and a chance for victory looked unlikely? Where are the nights that you know Bob Kearns cried himself to sleep or where he questioned what his desire for justice was doing to his family?
The most interesting scene in the movie is transplanted to the beginning and then the film flashes back and gets to it around midway through - a clearly overwhelmed Kearns is on a bus in his robe telling the cops that he's going to see the Vice President. He's snapped. But Abraham doesn't allow for nearly enough of that and is really only showing you this scene because it plays a role in the courtroom drama later. Abraham refuses to recognize that Bob might have been crazy on more than one occasion. You know that Bob Kearns had much darker days than Flash of Genius is willing to examine. Instead of going there, Abraham makes a film that nearly as obsessed with detail and time period recreation as Kearns was with justice. It looks authentic, but there's a feeling throughout that the emotion and the passion is missing. To be blunt, Flash of Genius feels 50% longer than its actual running time. It's as slow and lifeless a crowd pleaser as you'll see all year, a David-and-Goliath story that would have been a much stronger film if it realized that David has to be a little nuts to take on Goliath.
Rating: TWO BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: October 3rd, 2008
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney, Mitch Pileggi, and Alan Alda
Director: Marc Abraham
Writer: Phillip Railsback