October 9, 2008
Windshield Wiper Movie Pushes Dry Drama Too Far
By SCOTT A. MAY
In an age of corporate greed run amok, "Flash of Genius" is perfectly timed but imperfectly played, offering only sporadic sparks of dramatic depth and character empathy.
Based on a true story, the script was penned by the late Philip Railsback - brother of "Helter Skelter" actor Steve Railsback - adapted from a New Yorker article by John Seabrook. Veteran producer Marc Abraham ("The Commitments,""Children of Men") makes his directing debut with this feature, and it shows. Leave it to a money guy like Abraham to turn a sure-fire David and Goliath tale into something dryly chronological, lacking almost all emotional impact.
Greg Kinnear plays Robert Kearns, an engineering professor and amateur inventor who, in 1967, came up with a working model for the intermittent windshield wiper system used in most vehicles today. Kearns got the idea while driving in rain too light to merit constant wiper activity, yet too heavy to permit turning them off completely. His epiphany came later as he studied the blinking action of the human eye.
With the help of longtime friend and business partner Gil Previck (Dermot Mulroney), Kearns brings his invention to the attention of Ford Motor Co. Like the other big automakers, Ford had been trying for years to develop a similar mechanism, without any luck. After wowing the company's lead engineer, Kearns and Previck meet with top Ford executives, who were eager to negotiate a manufacturing contract, provided they were supplied a prototype.
Convinced that he's on his way to realizing the American Dream, Kearns invests all his time and money into the project, directly involving his wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham) and his five kids. Together they jokingly call themselves the Kearns Corp.
Then out of the blue, Ford drops all interest. Two years later, the company introduces intermittent wipers in its 1969 Mustang line. Enraged to the point of a nervous breakdown, Kearns finally decides to fight back, suing Ford - and 10 years later, Chrysler - for patent infringement.
The immediate challenge of this movie is to interest viewers in a topic as dull as circuit boards and wiper motors. As a gadget freak, I actually looked forward to a retelling of the invention process, as Kearns and kids tinkered away in his basement workshop. Unfortunately, the movie completely breezes over this aspect of the story, leaving us to wonder exactly what was so difficult about this apparatus that large teams of automobile engineers couldn't figure it out.
The other obvious angle on this story would be the classic dramatic formula of a little guy taking on a big, heartless corporation. Although that's clearly what's going on, the movie does little to evoke deep sympathy for Kearns or great outrage against Ford. It plays everything too safe, stirring little in the audience beyond mild curiosity about how it all ends, which anyone can read about in five minutes, thus saving their money for a more compelling film.
Kinnear has evolved into a good actor, but his performance here is one-note dull. The only things about his character that change through the course of the film are his hair style and clothing. Graham merely has to look supportive, then frustrated and finally indifferent but otherwise contributes little to the story. Mulroney is, well, Mulroney. Somewhere in the so-called thick of it, Alan Alda shows up as a cartoonish lawyer with dollar signs for pupils.
The story behind "Flash of Genius" would make a great History Channel special, but as a feature film, it's far too shallow and emotionally distant to sustain interest.
Flash of genius
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Alda
Director: Marc Abraham
Rating: PG-13 for strong language.
Theater: Stadium 14
Originally published by SCOTT A. MAY.
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