Flash of Genius



Toronto International Film Festival

"Flash of Genius" is one of those films you want to like much more than you ever will.  Based on a true story of one brave man who defied the odds by taking on the mighty Ford Motor Company, its heart is clearly, perhaps too clearly, in the right place.  

It's also solidly constructed throughout and the acting is impeccable.  The problem is that it just lumbers along for two solid hours, never rising to any significant emotional or philosophical heights.

This could be, in part, because what the brave man, an engineer named Robert Kearns, and the Ford Motor Company are fighting about is who invented the intermittent windshield wiper.  As everyone would agree, a handy (if not exactly crucial) part of every car's equipment.  But is it the stuff of drama?  

This debut feature of producer-turned-director Marc Abraham ("Children of Men") is based on a profile by John Seabrook which originally appeared in the New Yorker, a laudable magazine to say the least, but not one that is usually known for riveting theatrics.

Universal may opt for a small commercial release of the film--it certainly plays, and with skill, all the cards available to the heartwarming David vs. Goliath genre--but its rosiest future seems to lie in ancillary rights, especially television in territories around the world.

Greg Kinnear is rather one-note in his performance of the odd-bird engineer who turns down, on principle, Ford's offer of a $30 million settlement in favor of a risky trial, but then again, he's playing a one-note character.  In any case, this superbly talented actor shows once again that he's capable of playing anybody.  Lauren Graham, late of TV's "Gilmore Girls" is also completely believable as his loving but beleaguered wife--they have six small children--and the idea of family, developed in a fresh way, is an important theme in the film.  

Most of its problems lie with the script, which lurches around from period to period, over a span of twelve years, weighed down by a plethora of chronological indicators like "3 years earlier," "4 months later."  This is a tell-tale sign of the screenwriter's inability to tell the story succinctly enough to get as quickly as possible to the (predictably) best part of a film of this sort, the courtroom scene.  It's a good thing the film opens with Kearns' nervous breakdown before it moves "three years earlier," because after that, the suspense builds so slowly that audiences would be hard put to stick around if they didn't already know something bad was going to happen.

Occasionally, writer Railsback and director Abraham reach for something a little bigger in meaning, a little more transcendent in theme, but mostly the film is a plodding record of the obsessive plodding of its central character in his quest for justice.  

Production Companies:  Spyglass Entertainment, Strike Entertainment
Cast:  Greg Kinnear, Laura Graham, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Alda
Director:  Marc Abraham
Screenwriter:  Philip Railsback
Producers:  Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Michael Lieber
Director of photography:  Dante Spinotti
Production designer:  Hugo Lucyzc-Wyhowski
Editor: Jill Savitt
Sales:  Universal Pictures
No rating, 119 minutes