Friday, October 3, 2008

"Flash of Genius"--movie review

Alan Alda, Lauren Graham, Greg Kinnear, and director Marc Abraham

Okay, Christopher Kelly of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was not impressed, but then, that is his opinion. Critics have panned good movies before.

"MOVIE REVIEW: 'Flash of Genius'"


Christopher Kelly

October 3rd, 2008

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

An actor so effortlessly charming and endearing that you assume, deep down, he must be harboring some kind of filthy secret, Greg Kinnear has been perfectly cast in "Flash of Genius," Marc Abraham's fact-based drama about an all-American family man driven to madness when corporate America tries to take credit for one of his groundbreaking inventions.

Too bad the rest of the movie seems to have been crafted on an assembly line that specializes in inspirational tales of ordinary Davids triumphing over merciless Goliaths. Kinnear gives it his all here, lending dark shadings to a familiar cinematic figure (see Francis Ford Coppola's "Tucker," a movie to which this new film owes a vast debt). But Abraham so belabors his central theme, and he's so determined to put a lump in the viewer's throat, that he ends up losing sight of what makes the story interesting in the first place.

Based on a New Yorker magazine article by John Seabrook, "Flash of Genius" introduces us to university engineering professor and part-time inventor Bob Kearns (Kinnear), who, in 1962, while driving home from church with his family, experiences the titular lightning bolt: Why, he wonders, can't automobile windshield wipers operate like the human eyeball, and be designed to wipe intermittently? It might not sound like much, but at the time all of the major auto companies were working on this elusive invention. (Previously, all wipers wiped at the same medium-rate speed, regardless of whether it was a downpour outside or a drizzle.) When Kearns figured out the secret to making this new wiper work, and partnered with a local auto dealer (Dermot Mulroney) to bring the design to Ford, he naturally assumed he'd soon be a millionaire.

Enter the corporate slimeballs, who from the moment they appear on the screen we know are going to try to steal the design. The first hour of "Flash of Genius" is a familiar slog, designed to make the audience sympathize with this earnest soul who just wants to get credit where credit is due. Except no one seems to have told Abraham that Kearns didn't write "Hamlet" or cure cancer. He created a utilitarian object, one that it's hard to feel any emotion about, and one whose creation is awfully hard to make dramatic.

The bigger problem is that there's a curious gap between what the movie proclaims it's about, and what Kearns' life story (and Kinnear's performance) would seem to reveal. In the second half of "Flash of Genius," Kearns goes on an almost messianic crusade to get credit for his design and to bring the Ford Motor Company to court. Forsaking the wishes of his wife (Lauren Graham) and the practical advice of his lawyer (a sterling Alan Alda, whose two scenes here are the very best of the movie), he turns into a bristling, extremely unlikable figure. His arrogant refusal to accept that, in the United States, justice is usually meted out via out-of-court settlements ultimately costs him his family and sends him into the loony bin.

With each successive scene, Kinnear's performance turns darker and knottier. The actor shows us, just beneath that all-American veneer, lurks a man whose ego tramples everything in sight. (He plays a similar, if slightly more lighthearted version of the same character in another current movie, the wonderful romantic comedy "Ghost Town.")

The screenplay by Philip Railsback, however, takes Kearns' side throughout all of this. It accepts a given that his decades-long effort in bringing the case to court was a good thing. But was it? I sat through "Flash of Genius" wishing Kearns would take the million dollar settlements being dangled in front of him and stop his bellyaching. Less than a story of righteousness triumphing over greed, "Flash of Genius" mostly struck me as a two-hour-long advertisement for our country's desperate need for tort reform. (Seabrook's article makes the case that Kearns' efforts altered the way we view copyright law in this country, a topic that the film - perhaps out of fear of sending the audience into a deep coma - avoids altogether.)

A better director would have been able to address the moral problems raised by Kearns' actions - or perhaps used the man's story (the way Coppola did in "Tucker") as a metaphor for how artistic creation can sometimes destroy its creator. But Abraham, a longtime producer ("Children of Men," "Bring it On") and studio executive, resists all forms of subtlety, visual and textual. With its square framing and squeaky clean images, "Flash of Genius" looks like a Lifetime movie; and with its periodic pauses to allow the characters to deliver speeches that articulate the theme of the movie, it's about as complicated as one, also.

By the final 20 minutes, an interminable courtroom showdown in which Kearns represents himself (while the movie tries to teach us sticky-sweet lessons about the importance of family holding together through tough times), a potentially terrific lead performance has been sabotaged and the likable supporting cast has drifted into the woodwork. "Flash of Genius" might have been better titled "Not a Shred of Inspiration."

But then, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote...

"Flash of Genius"


Roger Ebert

October 2nd, 2008

Chicago Sun-Times

Why do corporations tend to be greedy? I suspect it's because their executives are paid millions and millions to maximize profits, minimize salaries and slash benefits that cut into the bottom line. Sometimes this can be taken to comic-opera extremes, as when the (now) convicted thief David Radler was stealing millions from the Sun-Times and actually turned off the escalators to save on electricity. I guess that helps explain why the Ford Motor Co., followed by Chrysler, stole the secret of the intermittent windshield wiper from a little guy named Robert Kearns.

Why bother? Why not just pay the guy royalties? Simple: Because Ford thought it could get away with it. He was only a college professor. They had teams of high-priced lawyers with infinite patience. They risked having the legal fees cost them more than the patent rights, but what the hell. You can't go around encouraging these pipsqueaks.

I know that I sound just like a liberal, but at this point in history I am sick and tired of giant corporations running roughshod over decent people -- cutting their wages, polluting their work environment, denying them health care, forcing them to work unpaid overtime, busting their unions and other crimes we have never heard George Bush denouncing while he was cutting corporate taxes. I am sure lower taxes help corporations to function more profitably. Why is that considered progress, when many workers live in borderline poverty and executives have pissing contests over who has the biggest stock options?

But enough. I have "Flash of Genius" to review. Yes, I am agitated. I am writing during days of economic meltdown, after Wall Street raped Main Street while the Bush ideology held it down. Believe me, I could go on like this all day. But consider the case of Robert Kearns, played here touchingly by Greg Kinnear. He was a professor of engineering, a decent, unremarkable family man, and had a eureka! moment: Why did windshield wipers only go on and off? Why couldn't they reflect existing conditions, as the human eyelid does?

Working in his basement, Kearns put together the first intermittent wiper from off-the-shelf components and tested it in a fish tank. He patented it in 1967. He demonstrated it to Ford, but wouldn't tell them how it worked until he had a deal. After Ford ripped it off and reneged on the deal, he sued in 1982. Thirteen years later, he won $30 million in a settlement where the automakers didn't have to admit deliberate theft.

"Flash of Genius" tells this story in faithful and often moving detail. If it has a handicap, it's that Kearns was not a colorful character, more of a very stubborn man with tunnel vision. He alienates his family, angers his business partner (Dermot Mulroney) and sorely tries the patience of his lawyer (Alan Alda), who he is not afraid to accuse of incompetence. Was his victory worth it? The movie asks us to decide. For Kearns, as depicted in this movie, it was. If he had not been obsessively obstinate, Ford would have been counting its stolen dollars.

The movie covers events taking place from 1953 to 1982. The wiper was hard to perfect. There are some gaps along the way, and we don't get to know his wife (Lauren Graham) and his family very well, nor perhaps does he. He calls his kids his "board of directors," but they mostly resign, only to return loyally in the end. Alda gives the film's strongest performance. Kinnear, often a player of light comedy, does a convincing job of making this quiet, resolute man into a giant slayer.

Todd McCarthy of Variety notices an odd fact: Right to the end, Kearns always drove Fords. He remained loyal. I remember those days. You were a Ford, a Dodge, a Cadillac or a Studebaker family, and that's what you remained. It was nice when sensible wipers were added to the package. Thanks, professor.

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