October 5, 2008

‘Flash’ Never Gets in Gear



Next time you're driving in a light rain, I want you to think about Robert Kearns as your wipers rhythmically squeak across the windshield.

Who's Robert Kearns, you ask? Oh, just the most tenacious inventor who ever lived. Or at least that's the impression "Flash of Genius" projects in methodically chronicling the rise, fall and resurrection of the man who devised the intermittent windshield wiper.

How significant is his invention? It's not quite up there with the hubcap and the cup holder, mind you, but the air bags in Hollywood thought it worthy of a movie, the first in what could become a series of auto parts spin-offs like "Rear Window: The Defogger Chronicles."

Ah, but I jest. As we all know, windshield wipers are a compelling study. Just try driving through a downpour without them. Still, we take them for granted, just like Ford Motor Co. took Kearns for granted when it stole his patent for what he called his "Blinking Eye Motor."

But unlike the guys who invented lug nuts and radiator hoses, Kearns did not go quietly into the victimized night. He fought back and fought back hard for 13 long years, losing his family and a good deal of his sanity in the process.

Did he ultimately win? Come on, would the suits be making the movie if he didn't?

It's that sort of blatant predictability, along with a shallow script and placid characterizations that rob "Genius" of a lot of flash. Yet it manages to be mildly entertaining thanks to a superb performance by Greg Kinnear as Kearns.

He more than justifies his Oscar buzz by nailing a part that not only requires him to convincingly age 15 years in two hours, but also demands that he go from a happy-go-lucky Detroit engineering professor with adoring wife and six wholesome kids to a disheveled wreck suffering the pangs of an addiction to ethics.

Kinnear has always been great at playing obsessed men, from sex- crazed actor Bob Crane in "Auto Focus" to the driven self-help guru in "Little Miss Sunshine." But never has it been so interesting keeping up with his jonesing.

It's a performance rich in depth and substance. In other words, everything the film is not, as it repeatedly undermines his superior work with inferior writing and uninspired direction.

As with many recent biopics like "Ray" and "Walk the Line,""Flash of Genius" is little more than a Cliffs Notes primer hitting upon all the high and low points of Kearns' life without benefit of any context or complexity.

Writer Philip Railsback, adapting a 1993 New Yorker piece by John Seabrook, and producer-turned-director Marc Abraham refuse to fill in the blanks of a poorly edited, underdeveloped story.

One minute Kearns is a happily married father; the next his wife (a sappy Lauren Graham) and kids are packing up and leaving him. Why?

An even bigger question is the root of Kearns' obsessive behavior, as he turns his back on family and career to take on a legal system that acts like a pusher: offering just enough hope to keep him coming back, but teasingly leaving him cold turkey when he needs jurisprudence most.

In that respect, "Flash of Genius" offers up a convincing indictment of a court system that's supposed to tilt toward the Davids but almost always protects the Goliaths via endless motions, stays and legal fees that make it virtually impossible to take on large corporations.

Seeing Kearns repeatedly standing up to the bullies, including his high-priced lawyer (Alan Alda in an all too-short stay), is indeed cathartic in a crowd-pleasing way. But it also rings hollow, especially when his story is being brought to you by Universal Studios, part of an even bigger Goliath than Ford.

But I'm sure the studio's heart was in the right place if not its head. Otherwise, I'd have to find it guilty of cowardice and hypocrisy worthy of car-mic retribution.

Reach Al Alexander at [email protected]

Originally published by By AL ALEXANDER, The Patriot Ledger.

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