“Flash of Genius” is anything but. The story of the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, who legally hounded the Ford Motor Co. for screwing him out profits and credit, is very small potatoes in the cinematic annals of inspiring little-guy-fights-the-system melodramas, to the point that it’s a wonder it was thought to be strong bigscreen material; an old-style TV movie would have been more like it. Pic’s pervasive blandness marks this as a theatrical also-ran.
That Dr. Robert Kearns, a middle-class Detroit teacher, basement tinkerer and Catholic father of many, had a legitimate beef against Big Auto is perfectly clear, and his obstinate determination to prove his point, even to the detriment of his family’s cohesion and his own stability, is moderately inspiring in the way such true-life stories of “the indomitable human spirit” are always constructed to be.
But it’s also unavoidable that Kearns, as nicely played by Greg Kinnear, was a pretty milquetoasty guy — and he’s the colorful one in the family. Scripter Philip Railsback, working from a story published in the New Yorker, and helmer Marc Abraham, the vet producer making his debut behind the camera, manage to make Kearns’ one contribution to history — his equating the blinking of the human eye to what an automobile windshield wiper should do and finding a way to engineer such a thing — interesting in a quaint, even amusing way, which sustains viewer interest through the first act.
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But nothing else, least of all his interactions with the ever-growing family he professes to care about so much, comes alive or carries much conviction. After presenting his invention to Ford and receiving a sufficient commitment to open a factory to move ahead with a prototype, the auto giant cuts him off. His wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) and key business backer Gil (Dermot Mulroney) support his sense of outrage for a while, but he — and, with him, the film — then drift off into many years in the wilderness, as Ford throws every conceivable legal roadblock in his way.
No matter the ultimate reward for his stubbornness — the court case, in which Kearns represented himself, is unavoidably engaging at times — this story simply doesn’t take on ramifications or meaning that extend beyond the specifics of this particular case. The lessons are simplistic: Stick to your guns, stand up for yourself, fight the big bully, etc., all without depth, attention to the ironic consequences of this stand or the effect on the inner lives of those involved.
Beyond the narrative shortcomings, the film is indifferently filmed, with uncustomarily flat visuals by cinematographer Dante Spinotti and listless pacing. Except for Mulroney and, briefly, Alan Alda as an attorney, supporting performances are colorless.
One minor detail is so bizarre that it deserves comment: Even after years of fighting the company, Kearns still drives a Ford. You’d have to think he’d trade it in for a different make. But if he truly did stick with the brand, a line of dialogue noting his reason would have been in order.