October 9, 2008

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Flash of Genius (PG-13)
Greg Kinnear plays an inventor who takes on the auto industry when they deny his claim on his invention in Flash Of Genius, an interesting if overly long biopic.

Bob Kearns (Kinnear) is a college science teacher in 1960s Detroit who, while in the car with his family — six kids plus wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) — during a rainstorm, starts to think about the windshield wiper in his car and why it has to only go at the one speed. After doing some designing and experimenting in the basement, he figures out how to put together what eventually comes to be called the intermittent wiper. He shows it to some friends and they help him get in to Ford, where he shows his idea to some executives. His plan is to manufacture the wiper, fulfilling his dream to become an engineer of note. Their plan is to get the wiper in their next year’s models. They get him to submit a model of the wiper for safety testing and then, just as he’s signed a lease for a factory, Ford backs out, saying it’s not interested. Not surprisingly, less than two years later, they have a wiper on their new high-end model that is similar in design to Kearns’ invention. Kearns fumes — not just about the lost financial potential of the invention but also about what he sees as the stealing of the invention that would have made him a somebody.

According to a variety of sources, the movie is based on an article about the real inventor who eventually sued Ford and other automakers to see some recognition for his wiper. I think a magazine article is about the perfect amount of time to spend with the story — long enough to get the facts and a bit of the personality of the man but not artificially long. The movie, which jumps years into the future for each new chapter in the story, feels like it forces the story into too big a space. To make each jump worth it, the movie seems to pad the facts of what happened with insights into Kearns’ personality — his desire for a specific kind of success, even at great cost. But the movie only dips half a toe into this pool; we get moments of the man behind the fight but often these moments aren’t deep enough to really add color to the story. Instead, it feels like scenes about Keams’ family life and the effects of his quest on it are unresolved filler.

Though too long and lacking in the kind of context long-format magazine writing could give to this kind of story, Flash of Genius is an interesting informational tale that offers a quietly entertaining study of a geeky underdog. B-

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Directed by Marc Abraham and written by Philip Railsback (from a New Yorker article by John Seabrook), Flash of Genius is two hours long and is distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.