Greg Kinnear in Flash of Genius

I wouldn’t say that the new film Flash of Genius is terrible. It’s actually not that bad. However, it could have been so much better.

The movie tells the story of Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), who invented the intermittent windshield wiper back in the 70s. All the auto manufacturers were trying to make their own model, but it was Kearns who made it work in his basement lab. This offered him an opportunity to partner with Ford Motor Company to add the unit into their new models.

However, Ford wasn’t interested in working with Kearns. They just wanted the wiper. After convincing him to let them send his invention to Washington for safety tests, Ford cut off their relationship with Kearns. This didn’t stop them from putting their own new model of intermittent wiper into their new line of cars, and Kearns spent years suing them for recognition.

One way to look at this film is as an underdog movie like Erin Brockovich, in which the little guy goes up against a seemingly unbeatable corporate giant. And with the likable Greg Kinnear in the lead role, it had a shot at being a great film.

However, some things got in its way. First, I didn’t have a whole lot of sympathy for Kearns. How naive do you have to be to enter into a handshake agreement with a conglomerate, then hand over your invention for them to dissect? The guy didn’t act with his best interest in mind, and he got nothing worthwhile in writing. Add to the fact that he utterly alienates his family in the ensuing years in his quest for justice.

Kinnear’s a fine actor, but it’s hard to play the victim in these circumstances. And while Kinnear works in the role, this has become his stock character, which we’ve seen before in better films like Little Miss Sunshine.

Another way the film failed is that the artistic drive of the director and cinematographer was something I understood but saw it as a hindrance of the movie. Because the film is about windshield wipers, the movie is shot in a rather overcast way. I’m assuming that’s meant to make the audience feel like we’re stuck in a drizzle of rain, but instead it just made the movie dark and depressing.

There are some good moments to the film. It’s actually quite well acted, with Lauren Graham playing Kearn’s wife, Dermot Mulroney as Kearn’s not-so-good business partner and Mitch Pileggi as the scheming Ford executive who manages to steal Kearn’s idea.

The whole concept of intermittent wipers seems like a gadget in today’s world. They come as a standard feature on most cars put on the market. However, in the early days of microelectronics, it was a fascinating addition to a new car. I personally remember when this feature started showing up on new models, and it was an exciting thing back then.

Ultimately, though, because of our collective inability to remember what electronics were like several decades ago, this film probably would have been better if they had made it in the 80s instead of now.

The Upside: Good performances by the cast.

The Downside: Somewhat dreary and depressing.

On the Side: The legal concept of “flash of genius,” used as a litmus test to validate an invention, was put out of use in the 1950s… long before the movie takes place.

Grade: C+


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