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Flash of Genius

Underwhelming is More Like It

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

There’s a moment in Flash of Genius, a “based on a true story” drama, where the lead character, Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear), the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers who sued major auto manufacturers in the 70s for stealing his ideas, when on the brink of finally winning financial compensation for his invention, consults his family on what to do next. He can accept $30 million dollars, but only if he drops his demand for an apology and due credit for his invention. Having fought so long and at great personal and professional expense, he refuses. It’s a praise-worthy moment, but it also points out everything that’s wrong with the film: it’s predictable, maudlin, and ultimately emotionally and dramatically unsatisfying.

Flash of Genius opens in the mid-1960s as Kearns, a university professor and devoted family man, gets the “flash of genius” of the title (the term “flash of genius” also refers to an outdated legal concept in patent law) as he’s driving his car in the rain. A longtime sufferer of poor vision in his left eye due to an accident on his honeymoon, Kearns suddenly realizes that adapting windshield wipers to “blink” intermittently can improve visibility and help to prevent weather-related car accidents. After some fiddling in his basement, an excited Kearns shares his invention with his wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham), and his best friend and potential business partner, Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney). After drawing up plans for intermittent window wipers, Kearns meets with representatives from Ford and pitches his idea. Ford initially express interest in Kearns’ invention, but after agreeing to work with him, decides to pass.

Eighteen months later, Ford’s latest models are sold with a new, innovative feature: intermittent windshield wipers. Understandably peeved at the automakers’ uncredited theft of his idea, Kearns takes a drastic step and sues the auto manufacturers for financial damages arising out of patent infringement. What follows is a decade and a half of lawsuits, failed legal strategies, lengthy delays, an emotional breakdown, strained relationships with his wife, children, and best friend, professional setbacks, and finally, after years of struggle, the prospect of financial compensation and recognition for his invention.

There’s yet another moment, much like the first, in Flash of Genius when Gil asks Kearns why he’s still pursuing his quixotic case against Ford. Kearns responds (more or less), “To you, it’s just a windshield wiper, to me, it’s the Mona Lisa.” No amount of hyperbole, however, can brush away the other character’s spot-on observation, an observation audiences are likely to share. Neither lackluster Philip Railsback’s screenplay, based on John Seabrook’s 1993 New Yorker article, nor Marc Abraham’s flat, uninspired direction (using motion-sensitive HD cameras no less), do much to convey a sense of urgency in Kearns legal, professional, or personal conflicts. The stakes may have been high for Kearns and his family, but moviegoers will be hard pressed to share in Kearns’ quixotic quest.

Sadly, Flash of Genius wastes naturalistic, grounded performances by Greg Kinnear as the obsessive, indomitable Kearns, Laurie Graham as Kearns’ long-suffering wife, Phyllis (a thankless, underwritten role), Dermot Mulroney’s turn as Kearns’ best friend, and even Alan Alda’s as Kearns’ attorney, Gregory Lawson, reasonably doubtful of Kearns’ chances at winning a lawsuit against a deep-pocketed Ford. Railsback’s on-the-nose dialogue doesn’t help the actors, who acquit themselves with what they have, but it’s Abraham’s lackluster direction that makes Flash of Genius an uninvolving experience. Given the subject matter, Flash of Genius’ producers would have been better served as a TV-movie-of-the-week or a documentary.