"Flash of Genius" had a very brief theatrical run despite some positive reviews and a lot of praise for Greg Kinnear's portrayal of Dr. Robert Kearns, a man who fought Ford for over a decade to get them to admit they stole his idea for the intermittent windshield wiper.
Yes, I know. Sounds thrilling. He didn't even invent a new thing, he just invented a way to make it better. But I decided to give the film a shot and recently watched the movie on DVD. The story of Dr. Bob Kearns becomes a little more interesting when you realize he and his wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham) have six kids (they're good and faithful Catholics) so Bob's struggles become the struggles for seven others. Bob is a professor but also likes to tinker with things and come up with inventions. One day, driving home from church, it begins to rain and he realizes his car could use a windshield wiper that works like the blink of his eye. He quickly comes up with a prototype and enlists the help of his friend Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney). They take the prototype to Ford and give their development guys a peak. But Bob is very weary of giving them a close look, so he keeps the car at a safe distance. They are impressed, but Bob wants them to commit to letting his new company manufacture the unit for all of their cars. Very quickly, Bob learns a new Mustang is being released with this very same feature. Bob decides to sue. He and his wife seek the help of a lawyer, Gregory Lawson (Alan Alda) who eventually comes to them with a settlement offer of $250,000. Very happy, he urges them to accept. But Bob wants them to admit they stole the idea and Lawson knows they won't and realizes he can't work for Kearns. As the battle continues, Phyllis and the kids leave Bob, but Kearns presses on and his kids become his legal assistants.
Directed by Marc Abraham, who has many impressive producing credits, "Flash of Genius" is an interesting story but it needs something else to help set it apart, to make it a moving, emotional experience for movie goers. As it is, the film seems flat and any emotions we might feel are quickly wiped away.
Kearns battle against Ford has many of the elements of the best David Vs. Goliath type stories. One man spends a significant portion of his life battling a huge corporation when he is clearly in the right. Okay. Check. But why don't we care for Dr. Bob Kearns more? Why isn't his journey more moving?
I think there are a number of reasons why the film fails on this front. Throughout the film, people simply disappear from the story. Kinnear's Kearns fights Ford for over a decade and people drop out of the picture as he continues steadfastly on his journey. His wife leaves him, his lawyer quits, his best friend abandons him, and his children get mad at him. All of these things point to an even more emotional journey. But for some reason, we just never connect to Kearns. Kinnear paints a portrait of the man who is seeking to get an injustice overturned. Great. But he shows so little emotion to anyone else throughout it is difficult for us to connect to him.
A couple of other inventors approach Kearns and tell him how important his journey is to them. He acknowledges them and this seems to give him a little jumpstart, renewing his energies in this fight. But these characters float in and out of the frame with almost no consequence and don't help to make his battle any more memorable of interesting.
At one point, a representative from Ford arrives on Kearns doorstep and offers him a huge settlement. When Kearns refuses because Ford won't acknowledge they stole the idea, the negotiator walks away and mutters "asshole" under his breath. Unfortunately, Kearns does actually seem to live up to his label. He turns down three settlement offers from Ford, and the last one would be considered a huge amount by today's standards, because the offers are made in the late 60s or early 70s they are truly astronomical. Given Kearns has six children who could benefit from this money, he seems, at best, reckless in turning this down. Obviously, this is meant to make us root for him all the more. What amount does he actually get in the end? But in order for this to happen, we have to actually care about him.
Also, it is often difficult to tell when the story is taking place. It seems to begin in the mid Fifties and the quest for justice lasts eleven years, so that would make the last settlement offer from Ford happen in the mid to late sixties. A truly astronomical amount for that day and age. Yet, it looks like it might be the early to mid seventies when Kearns finally gets to go to Patent Court against Ford. Because of this confusion, it is difficult for us to follow along. It is difficult for us to care. About Dr. Robert Kearns. Or about "Flash of Genius".