Flash of Genius
Reviewed by Edward Moran
Call it knowhow, ingenuity, or just plain genius, Americans like to think they’ve been endowed by their creator with the ability to build a better mousetrap (or windshield wiper. On the vast spectrum of national inventiveness occupied at one end by Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison and at the other by Rube Goldberg and Gyro Gearloose, there are hordes of ordinary Joes (and Joannes) who’ve spent lifetimes on that never-before-crafted idea that will make them rich and famous.
Therein lies a paradox in our national ethos: while Americans admire these persistent tinkerers as an exemplar of rugged individualism, they also dismiss them as nutty eccentrics frittering away their lives away on a pipe dream. Marc Abraham’s Flash of Genius is precisely about this tension.
Based on a true story, the film traces the vicissitudes of Professor Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear) in trying to bring his “intermittent windshield wiper” to Detroit in the 1960s, when the Big Three automakers still ruled the roost. Kearns, an engineering teacher at a minor Michigan college, came up with the idea on his wedding night when he accidentally popped a champagne cork into his eye. The event provoked a “flash of genius” that led him to contemplate whether the variable motion of the human eyelid could be a model for windshield wipers that could be adjusted to the intensity of rainfall.
Lest you think you’re going to be subjected to two hours of tedious laboratory experiments, fear not. Flash of Genius is above all a human story sensitively rendered by screenwriter Phliip Railsback. It is a richly textured film that aptly uses the camera’s eye to probe the dynamics of the Kearns family, all of whom—wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) and their six children—participate in one form or another in the daily vicissitudes of life among the inventors. For about the first hour, we root for Kearns as he seamlessly (and even lovingly) negotiates both his personal and professional spheres. He is not a lone-wolf inventor at all, but a family man who involves them in every aspect of his research. The kids do the math, Phyllis types the letters, and Kearns keeps his eye on the prize.
But you have to know something will go wrong. After all, this is a dude who remembers his wedding night more for its gee-whiz eureka moment than for other, presumably more intrusive events. As the film progresses, Kearns becomes more and more protective—even with a touch of paranoia—about his invention. When he becomes convinced that Ford Motor Company steals his patents, he begins a steady decline into madness, and he vanishes for months, the victim of a nervous breakdown.
It is then that audience sympathies begin to shift from Kearns to his long-suffering wife and family. Ford offers him ever-more-lucrative cash settlements—money that would set him and his family up for life, but Kearns stubbornly refuses because the terms of the settlement refuse to acknowledge him as the inventor of the device. A frustrated Phyllis finally walks out on him as Kearns pursues his dwindling dream. He decides to fight in the courts, moves into a tiny cottage in a seedy part of town, and with the help of Dennis (Jake Abel), a loyal son, painstakingly starts putting his case together. After years of research, he finally has his day in court—and wins.
By this time, not surprisingly, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Flash of Genius is one of those old-fashioned morality films on the order of It’s a Wonderful Life. Its pacing and its restraint are refreshing. No glitzy bells and whistles. This delightful release shows that films can be warm and fuzzy without ever straying into corniness. With Wall Street in meltdown and the American auto industry a shadow of its former self, it’s good to be reminded of the way things used to be. Flash of Genius marks the directorial debut for Marc Abraham. How satisfying it is to be present at the beginning of a promising career.
Directed by Marc Abraham
Written by Philip Railsback
Based on the New Yorker magazine article “The Flash of Genius” by John Seabrook
Director of photography:Dante Spinotti
Edited by Jill Savittc
Music by Aaron Zigman
Production designer: Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski
Produced by Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum and Michael Lieber
Released by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours.
Cast: Greg Kinnear (Bob Kearns)
Lauren Graham (Phyllis Kearns)
Dermot Mulroney (Gil Previck),
and Alan Alda (Gregory Lawson).