Thursday, October 23, 2008

Flash of Genius

This film could not possibly have come out at a better time. It hits theaters right after Congress finally approved a bailout that will take over 700 billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to help out firms who fell on hard times by mismanaging … taxpayers’ money. After corporations made out like the economy was about to collapse just to panic the average person into supporting them. After the last few weeks of enraging displays, what better way to unwind than with a film about a little man who took on a big company and won?

Chronicling the lengthy bout between the Ford Motor Company and Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, “Flash of Genius” takes the invention of a device we don’t give a second thought to and makes it a struggle of wits. Kearns, played by Greg Kinnear in top form, starts the film as a dedicated family man and professor who invents a superior wiper to the outdated model still attached to every car in the country. He applies for patents and takes his invention to Ford, who promise him everything: nobody will touch his invention until they make a deal, he’ll get manufacturing rights, everything. Then they manipulate him into providing a test model and lock him out before inking a contract. Kearns, a stubborn man, spends the next 20 years trying to get even.

Inevitably, the dogged pursuit of fairness and recompense tears his personal life apart. However, “Flash of Genius” spares us the usual melodrama, with both Kinnear and Lauren Graham slowly letting it all build up until they quit in exasperation, not anger. There are no shouting matches, no teary “you’re tearing this family apart” nonsense; Kearns simply slips away from his family as he becomes more and more obsessed. The only real moment of a dramatic flare-up comes shortly after Kearns sees his stolen invention on new Fords and suffers a nervous breakdown in which he travels to Washington D.C. at the behest (or so he thinks) of the Vice President; the rest of the time he is a man possessed, focused only on his lawsuit, but in a distracted, neglecting way. This is the film’s greatest strength and weakness, because it allows Kinnear to put in a marvelously subdued performance, but also locks the movie into a simpler note.

Wisely, the film does not deviate from Kearns’ perspective. There are no meetings behind closed doors where executives snigger and wring their hands and gleefully plot the exploitation of this naïve genius. At what point they steal his work and figure out how to close a loophole is uncertain, and we only see Kearns’ despair. Along the way he makes some friends who agree to help him but back out when they cannot convince him to settle with Ford. The best of these is an initially charming and seemingly noble attorney played by Alan Alda, who’s gotten a second life in his career playing sleazy lawyers and politicians.

“Flash of Genius” isn’t really a great film; there’s too little happening to leave a mark. However, it’s well-paced, and it is perfectly suited to the current zeitgeist. I imagine at least a handful of man vs. corporation scripts got greenlit recently, and this, for the time being, will be their flagship. Greg Kinnear puts in the kind of underdog performance the Academy loves. Don’t expect an Oscar nomination for him, but don’t be surprised if he gets one, either. “Flash of Genius” won’t get your blood pumping, but it might just make watching CNBC a little more bearable for a few days.

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