Universal // 2008 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // February 17th, 2009
Corporations have time, money, and power on their side. All Bob Kearns had was the truth.
My car has about eight different speeds for the windshield wipers. When I stop at a stoplight, the wipers automatically slow down. If my wipers are on and I throw the car into reverse, the back wiper automatically kicks on. Yes, cars have come a long way since the Ford Galaxie 500 sloshed through the streets creating eardrum piercing window-farts during the slightest drizzle.
Much to my surprise, the story behind the intermittent windshield wiper is a fascinating underdog story.
Dr. Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine) was an engineering professor in the heart of Motor City right in the middle of the American automotive boom. He spent his life dreaming of bigger things, of changing the world with one of his inventions.
One day, after church, Kearns and his exceedingly large family are experiencing firsthand the annoyance of the Galaxie's farting wiper blades. It's raining, but not enough to warrant a full-on automatic wipe every second. If he turns off the wipers, then he can't see. Something needed to change. So, approaching the windshield as if it were an eye, and the wipers eyelids, Kearns invented a very basic intermittent wiper system -- before any of the big automakers could crack the electronic and mechanical hurdles, mind you.
Armed with plans to manufacture the device himself, Kearns gathers up investors and pitches the idea to Ford. At first Ford shows interest, giving Kearns the go-ahead to put together his factory. However, before the ink can dry on the loan papers, Ford backs out, stealing Kearns's prototype in the process. Ford released its own version of the intermittent wipers the next year.
Now, Kearns is in the fight of his life as he takes on Ford in a nigh-impossible patent lawsuit that would span more than a decade.
So often in life, it's not the inventor that gets the credit with a new idea, but rather the guy who is slick enough to know how to market it. Flash of Genius not only focuses on this very specific brand of survival of the fittest, it magnifies it with style, humor, and suspense. A movie about windshield wipers is actually interesting...I know, it's nuts.
The story begins with Kearns being escorted off of a bus by police officers. He's clutching a kite, and looking generally disheveled. Flash back three years, and you can see why. The guy's life-changing idea was taken from him by the biggest corporation in town, and everyone he knows is more than happy to just look the other way. Flash of Genius is a low-budget underdog story that succeeds largely due to the superb acting of Greg Kinnear. The character of Robert Kearns has all the calling cards of a Kinnear role: he's dorky but lovable; his goofy smile masks his hidden frustrations; he just wants to be happy and change the world, but can't because of his social and economic status. You could probably apply any of these character traits to the majority of Kinnear's more recent roles, and here they all are, embodied in one individual. Kinnear latches on to Kearns 100 percent, and turns in possibly the best performance I've seen from him.
The cast surrounding Kinnear is stellar as well. Kearns's wife, Phyllis, is played with cautious optimism by Lauren Graham (Evan Almighty). Early in the film, Graham is a frantic but happy mother of six who is still head-over-heels in love with her husband. As the film wears on, Phyllis's patience wears out, and Graham portrays her as tired, frustrated, and cold. It's a great transition that really has time to develop over the 120-minute runtime. Kinnear and Graham are helped along by some veteran character actors like Alan Alda (The West Wing), Mitch Pileggi (Stargate: Atlantis), and Bill Smitrovich (The Practice). There really isn't a weak actor in the entire film.
Flash of Genius does have a weakness: the pacing. The story is handled wonderfully, with a great attention to detail and mood, but the second act dragged. Once Kearns has his nervous breakdown and is admitted to the mental hospital, which is around the one-hour mark, the film slows down to a crawl. We see his life slowly unravel, as his obsession with justice grows. It's interesting, yes -- and surely true, considering that this entire ordeal spanned 25 years -- but at least 15 to 20 minutes of the movie could have been trimmed. A briefer second act would have allowed the final, climactic trial to arrive with a bit more momentum than it does. The trial is interesting, but by the time it arrived I was a little worn out.
Lengthiness aside, first-time director Marc Abraham handles the film well. He's given Flash of Genius a distinct look, which feels retro without shoving a whole bunch of obvious nostalgia down your throat. Abraham accomplished this task by using lots of washed out colors (browns and blues) combined with some choice automobiles and costumes. You're never totally sure what year it is, but you get a sense of the era in which this man operated. The camera work is subtle, but effective, employing a very conservative handy-cam look and lots of medium to long shots. It's a well made movie.
For the most part, the light budget isn't an issue. Although I can't help but wonder if it affected the actual quality of the picture. At times, Flash of Genius looks blurry and digital, which is more than likely a result of cameras used while filming rather than the DVD transfer. The film's audio fairs much better. The dialogue takes center stage due to the very minimal score by Aaron Zigman. I wasn't a huge fan of the bubbly organ music, but it certainly felt unique and appropriate when used.
Included on the disc are a handful of deleted scenes and a commentary track. The deleted scenes are just more character development from the second act. None of them are particularly interesting, which is OK because you probably won't want to watch them more than once. The commentary track by Marc Abraham provides a good deal of information about the techniques employed in the film as well as the movie's authenticity. Sadly, there aren't any documentaries or featurettes about the real life Bob Kearns. It would have been cool to see even a small video about the guy's real life story.
Flash of Genius is a well-crafted underdog movie with a perfect cast. I'm pretty sure Greg Kinnear was born to play Bob Kearns. It may feel a bit too long at points, but the final trial scene makes up for it. If you missed this movie in theaters, you'll definitely want to catch it on DVD.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes