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October 6, 2008 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | October 6, 2008 |

Flash of Genius is one of those films that are almost impossible to critique, which ride a fine line between worthless and innocuous. As a piece of entertainment, it’s perfectly serviceable; nothing about the movie is actually bad at all, but nor is there anything to recommend. This is a standard yarn about David taking on Goliath and first-time director Marc Abraham never strays too far from the path, and yet what was probably an inspiring story in its original form makes a dull film in the rehashing.

This embellished tale is of engineering professor Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear) who, in the late 1960s, invented the intermittent windshield wiper, one of those taken-for-granted, ubiquitous designs which should’ve made him millions. Kearns took his invention to Ford for licensing, hoping to manufacture the product himself. The higher-ups of the company all but slaver over Kearns’ ingenious device, but after absconding with it for “safety testing,” suddenly tell Kearns they aren’t interested. Kearns is stunned, but thinks chicanery is afoot when Ford’s new models (as well as the rest of the Big Three) are all outfitted with his intermittent wipers. Kearns is, understandably, incensed, but his attempts to gain recognition are met with discouragement by everyone involved, especially his long-suffering wife (Lauren Graham). Undeterred and becoming increasingly obsessive, Kearns suffers a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized.

This mental collapse is a bit of a leap in the logic of Flash of Genius’s narrative, and it’s here where Kearns’ character starts to show a bit of a troubling dichotomy: he appears as a bumbling goofball; strange, but basically endearing man who skirts madness more often than brilliance. Released from psychiatric care, Kearns is no less obsessed with getting Ford to fess up for the theft of his idea. He constantly wages patent litigation over the course of years, resulting in untold personal costs. The latter half of the film follows this unrelenting, uphill struggle as Kearns refuses to stop even when Ford throws piles of money at him. The film assumes a tacked-on homily of never sacrificing a moral truth in the face of insurmountable odds, but this gets a bit tangled in the realities of the script. Kearns’ fight against the wicked corpocracy is certainly a just one, but as obsessive as he is about securing recognition and oblivious to the suffering this fight is causing his loved ones (his wife eventually leaves him), Kearns becomes less of a hero than a parochial nutjob with right on his side.

Yet, even with a blurred protagonist, it’s hard to imagine who would get choked up about a film like Flash of Genius: motor vehicle historians? Patent attorneys? Other inventors? Maybe, but even they won’t be awed by the way this familiar story is told, nor by the victory we know David will wrest from Goliath in that triumphant final moment (if you considered that a spoiler…wow). Making things like this engaging is a difficult task, one that neither cast nor crew are quite up to. Flash of Genius is just competent; a host of OK individual parts whose sum is a blazing boatload of meh.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).

Patent Law Enthusiasts, Now There's a Movie for You Too!

Flash of Genius / Phillip Stephens

Film | October 6, 2008 |

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