"Flash of Genius" (PG-13)
2 1/2 stars out of 4
For its first hour, "Flash of Genius" is the mostly engaging underdog story of Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear), an engineering professor who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. The final hour is a largely dry chunk of courtroom melodrama where Kearns - acting as his own attorney - sues the Ford Motor Co. for stealing his idea.
Veteran producer/first time director Marc Abraham and screenwriter Philip Railsback adapt an original story from an article in the New Yorker magazine and make the all too familiar mistake of giving us far more movie than we want or need. The trimming of 30 minutes from the final cut would have resulted in a more cohesive and far less stodgy film.
Kinnear had a similar leading role as another real-life character that was also a dutiful, if often absent father and husband consumed by outside interests. In "Auto Focus," it was as actor Bob Crane and his addictions to sex and porn. Here as Kearns, it's as a dogmatic, often destructive pursuer of truth, ethics and redemption that spanned four decades and cost him dearly.
In the mid '60s while working in his basement with assorted electronic gadgets, Kearns came up with the design for the wiper, one which baffled the greatest automotive engineering minds for years. Kearns and partner Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney) presented it to Ford executives, who in turn gave him the go-ahead to start production and then mysteriously rescinded their offer. Months later, Kearns' wiper started showing up on new Ford models and he immediately and understandably went ballistic.
After initially writing Kearns off as a nutcase, Ford started making him ever-escalating backdoor offers to make him go away, which he would have taken had they also publicly admitted he was the true inventor. Kearns was more interested in getting the credit for the invention than any amount of hush money.
Privick, Kearns' wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) and his fancy mouthpiece lawyer (Alan Alda) back his cause until it becomes clear he will never give up. It's easy to appreciate and respect a man in possession of such high moral certitude and unwavering ethical conviction. It is when this same man slips into such a state of bitter indignity do we start to question his true motives, rationale and priorities.
Abraham's exceedingly earnest and thoughtful movie takes the "do the right thing" mantra and completely drives it into the ground. The film, whether intentional or not, is a metaphor for Kearns' own story: it doesn't know when to let up and ends up losing much of the audience's interest in the process.
Kinnear essentially carries the entire production, appointing himself well by displaying a level of emotional range not seen since his Oscar-nominated supporting role in "As Good As It Gets."
Even if you're familiar with the story going in, the movie's last few scenes and its epilogue might take you by surprise and finally deliver the emotional whammy in two minutes the rest of the film couldn't do in two hours. (Focus Features)