A moment of high drama occurs in “Flash of Genius” when the protagonist, electrical engineer Robert Kearns, sees a new Ford automobile drive past him in the rain with windshield wipers that move … intermittently!!!
This fact-based, well-meaning, allegedly inspiring film is about Kearns’ invention of the intermittent windshield wiper, and his attempts to prove that the Ford Motor Company stole his patents for it. It is approximately as interesting as it sounds, despite its best efforts to be more interesting than that.
Kearns is played by Greg Kinnear, a truly likable actor who imbues Kearns — a devoted husband, a father of six, a curious and capable engineer — with the fire and passion necessary for a man so committed to such a seemingly lost cause. With just a hint of a “you betcha” Midwestern accent, Kearns is dedicated to important principles like truth and justice. “This isn’t about money!” he says more than once. “It’s about right and wrong!” That’s corny, and the film belabors the point, but Kinnear makes it believable.
We begin sometime in the early 1960s (the movie spans two decades but is maddeningly vague on specifics), with Kearns teaching at a university while his wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham), with whom he is still deeply in love, rears the children. One day on the way home from church Kearns remarks on how annoying it is that windshield wipers operate only on one speed. When it’s a light rain, the wipers start to squeak against the windshield after only a couple passes. But if you turn them off, your vision is quickly obscured.
So with his young sons helping him, Kearns retreats to his basement workshop and basically invents the intermittent wiper. His lawyer friend, Gil (Dermot Mulroney), helps him go to Ford with it, carefully keeping the specifics of how it works a secret, lest Ford coincidentally invent it themselves for free. There’s some double-dealing, some switcheroos, and next thing you know it’s 18 months later and Ford is unveiling its own intermittent wiper, with no acknowledgement whatsoever of Kearns. It’s obvious that Ford stole Kearns’ design; the rest of the film is devoted to Kearns’ attempt to prove that.
This is the directorial debut from Marc Abraham, a film producer with a couple dozen credits to his name. He directs the movie the way a producer would: efficient, straightforward, with little artistry or creative flair. He guides Philip Railsback’s no-frills screenplay through its plot points as if following a template. First the hero needs to get so caught up in what he’s doing that he neglects his family; then he must become obsessed; then there must be impassioned speeches and testimonials from supporters (“If you don’t fight, the rest of us will never stand a chance!” says a character whose name and function, other than delivering that line, I didn’t catch). Eventually there must be courtroom scenes, more speeches, and much inspiring music coming from the string section of the orchestra.
None of it is bad, of course — it’s just overly familiar. The film never rises above its mundane subject matter, and it certainly doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself from any other run-of-the-mill fact-based drama about One Man fighting against The System. And for a movie called “Flash of Genius” — the term for an inventor’s epiphany — it sure doesn’t depict any. We see the moment when Kearns realizes the need for an intermittent wiper. What we don’t see, even though his whole case hinges on it, is how he actually designed one. More insight into the creative mind of the inventor might have helped this ordinary movie stand out from the crowd.
C+ (1 hr., 59 min.; )