Stop me if you've heard this one before. A family man who has been wronged by a steely corporation of filthy rich, seemingly untouchable bigwigs makes it his mission and his life's work to be amended for the manipulating injustices they have wrought. "Flash of Genius" is adapted from a New Yorker
article by John Seabrook and, naturally, based on a true story, but that doesn't stop its narrative course from being an overly familiar one. What first-time director Marc Abraham gets right, then, is his serious, straightforward treatment of the material. Working from a screenplay by Philip Railsback, Abraham is savvy enough to look beyond the surface and note that the story being told isn't quite as inspirational as first glance might suggest. With standing up for what one believes in, there sometimes is a bigger price to pay in life.
In the late-1960s, Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear) is a Detroit-based engineer and college professor with a supportive wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham), and a brood of six children. Yearning to make an impact on the world no matter how great or small, Robert sets out to see his idea for intermittent windshield wipers become a reality. When he finally cracks his invention, he and partner friend Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney) take their creation to the heads of Ford Motor Company, who are more than enthused about what they see. Robert wants to manufacture this new car feature himself, but he doesn't get the chance; Ford's newest model is soon released to the market with the intermittent windshield wipers he created, passed off as their own and with nary a mention of the man responsible for them. Not one to sit quietly while the companies get all the glory, Robert denies the urgings of those around him to leave well enough alone and consumes himself with setting the facts straight and receiving the credit he rightfully deserves.
Reading the basic premise of "Flash of Genius" doesn't exactly set the viewer up for a riveting time at the movies, but the film isn't about Robert's invention so much as it is a study in perseverance and understanding the difference between right and wrong. Robert's journey to taking Ford and Chrysler to court is a long, arduous one, forthrightly set up in a conversation he has with no-nonsense lawyer Gregory Lawson (Alan Alda). When Gregory puts Ford's monetary payoff on the tablethe equivalent of hush moneyRobert declines. It isn't money that he wants, but the public admission that Ford stole the idea from him. In the picture's best scene, superbly performed by Alan Alda (2004's "The Aviator
"), Gregory lays the bitter cards on the table: the chance of one man going up against a giant corporation and succeeding is slim and, even if he did finally get them into court, the process will take years of his life for what ultimately won't amount to much.
Greg Kinnear (2008's "Baby Mama
") delivers his most potent, multidimensional performance in years as the steadfast Robert Kearns, whose determination in seeing his case to the end is admirable. Achieving this goal, however, comes with a definite cost on his mental health and personal life. As nearly a whole decade passes by, Robert temporarily becomes detached from realityhe abruptly leaves home and is found on a bus headed for Washington, D.C., where he claims he has an appointment with the presidentand then loses the love of his life, who can no longer stand along the sidelines and be virtually ignored. Lauren Graham (2007's "Evan Almighty
") brings a depth and sad-eyed quality to wife Phyllis, who sees her relationship with Robert slipping away and can't do anything about it.
The weakest section of "Flash of Genius" is its third-act courtroom dealings, with Robert choosing to represent himself and convince the jury that he had patents on his invention before Ford released its new windshield wipers. While the viewer has come to care about Robert and, thus, the outcome of the case, these scenes are too choppy and insubstantial for the jury's verdict to be believable. They also flirt the line of comic relief, reminding one of 1992's "My Cousin Vinny" when that probably wasn't the intention. Judged solely on what director Marc Abraham opts to show us of Robert's amateurish lawyering skills, I would have sided with Ford.
Climactic missteps aside, "Flash of Genius" cleanly tells its story and musters up enough dramatic weight for the final scenes to satisfyingly resonate. In the end, Robert gets what he wants, but also silently acknowledges what he has sacrificed in return. For that, the film is more bittersweet than rousingly upbeat, and that's how it should be. With minimal saccharine emotions and a reliance on low-key realism, "Flash of Genius" is a formulaic underdog tale carried out with decided intelligence.