October 4, 2008

‘Flash of Genius’ is on, Then Off / Intermittent Windshield Wiper Inventor’s Story Works, Then Pauses, Works Again

Joseph Regenstein invented the window envelope. Richard Drew invented Scotch Tape. And a man named Robert Kearns invented the intermittent windshield wiper. It's an unheralded bit of technology, but one that makes our lives more pleasant. Before the intermittent windshield wiper, in a light rain we had to turn the wipers on and off, on and off.

Although the device itself holds a certain technological geek interest, the story of its invention is not typically the stuff of movies. It's what happened after the invention that became a story of grit and determination, drama and conflict, and of a single underdog taking on an immense and powerful foe with nothing on his side but truth and justice.

"Flash of Genius," which tells this story, has the elements of a classic. Think of it as being like an intermittent windshield wiper - it works well, then it pauses, then it works well again.

Greg Kinnear stars as Kearns, a Detroit professor of applied electrical engineering. Frustrated by the inability of windshield wipers to work the way he wants, and inspired by the function of a blinking eyelid, he invents what he calls the blinking eye motor. It took Paul Ehrlich 606 tries to perfect the vaccine for syphilis - Kearns, according to this movie, got his invention right the first time.

Frankly, some of us would like to know just a little more about how this motor works and how Kearns, in his basement, solved a problem that had eluded the best minds at the big automakers.

But the late writer Philip Railsback (Steve Railsback's brother) has other themes in mind. He wants to explore betrayal, a descent into madness (too abrupt for my taste), redemption, dedication, sacrifice and intellectual conflict. And of course it goes without saying that he wants to try out the idea of a father reconciling with his estranged son. Because, you know, that's never been done before.

About halfway through the film we recognize a sad truth - engineers do not make the best movie heroes. Gladiators, sure, and policemen and cynical saloon keepers who hide a deeply romantic past. But the not entirely inaccurate stereotype of engineers is that they may be just the tiniest bit nerdy.

Kinnear is reliably believable in the role. To some extent, however, this means his characterization is not compelling enough to carry the film, particularly in the slow-paced midsection. In the last act, when he becomes lively and watchable again, it is interesting to note that he takes on both a different persona and a different, more inherently dramatic, profession.

First-time director (but longtime producer) Marc Abraham struggles a bit with a small budget, and the lighting is as bad as it tends to get with a digital video camera. But he is helped by an ability to recognize a good story when he sees one.

Who knew you could make the intermittent windshield wiper interesting?


* * * (Three Stars)

Cast: Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham

At: Carmike, Commonwealth, Short Pump, Southpark, Virginia Center

FYI: Running time: 1:52. Rated PG-13 (brief strong language)

Contact Daniel Neman at (804) 649-6408 or [email protected]

Originally published by NEMAN; Times-Dispatch Staff Writer.

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