Flash of Genius (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Flash of Genius Poster

Flash of Genius is based on the real-life story of engineer Bob Kearns, who is credited with inventing the intermittent windshield wiper. The movie, which recounts the period beginning with the invention and continuing through a lawsuit against Ford Motor Company, follows the popular "David vs. Goliath" formula of the Little Guy fighting against the Big Corporation. One reason the film lacks punch is because, unlike similarly-themed movies A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich, there are no health issues involved. This is purely a patent infringement case, and that subject matter is a little dry. The key for a movie like this is to develop things in a manner that makes us want to watch it even though the story is familiar, and Flash of Genius succeeds only marginally in that regard.

In 1967, Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear) and his business partner, Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney), received patents for the intermittent windshield wiper, a device Bob developed in his garage after noticing that cars were not equipped to handle misty or drizzly conditions. Convinced there was a market for his mechanism, he shopped it to Ford. Initially, the reception was enthusiastic, but the company backed out at the last minute for unspecified reasons. Two years later, Ford was offering intermittent, variable-speed wipers as an option on cars. Bob was crushed, believing that Ford stole his idea without giving him credit. He sued Ford in 1978 for patent infringement and, when his lawyers backed out after Bob turned down an out-of-court settlement, he elected to act as his own attorney. Unable to stand the stress, his wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham), moved out. His six children, however, helped him with the legal legwork. Bob finally got his day in court in 1990.

The film lacks dramatic momentum and, especially early in the proceedings, is largely inert. The first hour has long stretches in which viewers can visit lavatories and snack bars without missing much. There also aren't many surprises. Only after Alan Alda shows up as a lawyer willing to help Bob does Flash of Genius develop some energy. The court case, which comprises the second half of the film, is moderately interesting but doesn't deviate from what audiences have come to expect from motion picture trial procedurals. We have the interrogation of witnesses, the cross-examinations, the moment of legal brilliance, and the closing arguments. It's all by-the-book, and that limits its ability to be more than passably interesting. It doesn't matter that it's based on a true story - we still know how it's going to end.

Greg Kinnear gives an admirable, but hardly great, performance as Bob. He portrays the man as a generally good-hearted individual who loses his family when he becomes obsessed with the lawsuit, then regains them when he makes it apparent he's not in the battle for the money but for the principle of the matter. Lauren Graham provides effective support as Phyllis although, to be frank, her role consists of little more than being the supportive wife who eventually loses faith and walks out. Alan Alda doesn't have much screen time, but he convinces as a practical lawyer who's interested in more than milking the case for as much money as he can get.

While it's true that movies of this sort can be crowd-pleasers, the general tone and approach of Flash of Genius are too slow and low-key to generate the spark that will have audiences boisterously applauding Bob's struggle. Viewers who stick with the movie will be behind him at the end, but this isn't the kind of narrative that delivers the rapturous surge of emotion that some David vs. Goliath films provide. Engineers might find a limited fascination with the movie's depiction of the process by which Bob develops the intermittent wiper, but there may be too little of that to generate real interest. In short, Flash of Genius fails to make viewers care with any depth about the story it's telling. We have seen this kind of tale before, and director Marc Abraham(a longtime producer making his filmmaking debut) is unable to convince us that we want to see it again.

Flash of Genius (United States, 2008)

Director: Marc Abraham
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Alda
Screenplay: Philip Railsback, based on an article by John Seabrook
Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Music: Aaron Zigman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2008-10-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1