Rating: 2.5 stars
Flash of Genius is probably better than any movie about the guy who invented intermittent windshield wipers deserves to be. That’s not to say it’s a great film—it’s far too earnest to be truly entertaining (it’s very excited about patent law)—but it does have a certain shaggy charm.
Greg Kinnear plays Bob Kearns, an engineer who notices the inadequacy of his car’s wipers on a rainy day and becomes obsessed with improving them. Kearns pitches his idea to the Ford Motor Company. At first they don’t believe he’s done it (their own team of crack inventors has come up empty), then they buy his invention. Then they promptly steal it.
Of course, it’s easy to share Kearns’ zeal for taking on the greedy corporation and exposing them as the thieves they are. But when Kearns’ obsession with justice becomes all consuming—he ends up in a mental facility—it’s hard to get behind him, especially when Ford is offering him a megabucks settlement that he piously refuses.
In a way, Greg Kinnear, who has an ability to disappear into the role he’s playing, is the perfect actor to play Kearns. But maybe he disappears too much (I preferred his rakish turn as a dead guy in Ghost Town). His Kearns is a little wonky and square—he even goes crazy in a polite fashion—a bit like the film itself.
What the film desperately needs is a character—any character: A hateful villain, a sexpot wife, a roguish defense attorney. The best they can come up with is Alan Alda, who briefly becomes Kearns’ attorney, until he realizes that Kearns wants justice, not money. (With all due respect, it’s a bad sign when Alda is your film’s most vivid character.) Even Lauren Graham, so winningly spunky on Gilmore Girls, is buttoned up as Kearns’ put-upon wife.
Still, the Capraesque foundation of the story is good. The film is sturdy and competent—as steady and dependable as a set of good wiper blades.