Actor Greg Kinnear has had pretty good luck playing the “every man” on screen–you know, those Jimmy Stewart kind of roles where an average American attempts to do the heroic or the impossible when no one believes he can. His latest such role is as Robert Kearns, a professor who becomes an inventor, and is based on the real-life story of a man from Detroit who claims to have invented intermittent windshield wipers. Yes, it seems an unlikely, unglamorous tale on one level, but “Flash of Genius”—in theaters Friday– imbues the tale with heart, even as it is a not-so-flattering look at one man’s American Dream.
A little-known piece of automotive history, is that back in 1967, automakers were in the process of researching and developing the formula to create intermittent windshield wipers for their cars. Where experts at the automakers failed, Kearns succeeded, and took his invention to Ford, which then proposed a lucrative deal with Kearns. But Kearn’s dream of immortality take a wrong turn– the first of many–when Ford suddenly retracted their offer. Next thing Kearns knows, Ford is selling intermittent windshield wipers on their latest models using his technology. What ensues is a drawn out legal battle that lasts even into the 1990s as Kearns fights to be recognized, and compensated, for his invention.
This isn’t exactly the flashiest subject matter for a movie (pun intended!), and if you have seen the movie “Tucker” with Jeff Bridges, then this movie will seem oddly familiar. However, to the movie’s credit, “Flash of Genius” is not quite a black and white, feel-good piece of Americana. Kearns may have been treated unjustly but his pursuit for name recognition for his invention costs him more personally than he could have imagined. His refusal to compromise becomes his undoing. In fact, at times, it becomes difficult to sympathize with Kearns because his choices are so often self-destructive.
Kinnear gives a strong performance as the obsessed inventor and Lauren Graham (“Gilmore Girls”) is as delightful as always as the long-suffering wife with a large brood. She is the moral compass that Kearns ignores, by and large.
As a whole the movie is certainly not always as riveting or entertaining as it could be, but the story is a worthwhile tale of ethics and morality that, in our current rocky economic climate of big corporation mismanagement and excess, still rings true. So I can’t recommend “Flash” for being a work of genius, but I can recommend that it is at least an intelligent movie that creates a reasonably effective portrait of family values at odds with greed and glory.