"Flash of Genius" is largely about how one person's nothing is another person's everything. Take the intermittent windshield wiper, for example. I, for one, had never much thought about who designed it, where it came from or whether there was a story there. For Robert Kearns, however, it becomes the defining object of his life.
In the late 1960s, while all of the big Detroit auto manufacturers were struggling to create their own intermittent wiper system, Kearns (Greg Kinnear) invented one on his own in his basement. He was rebuffed after trying to sell his invention to Ford, only to see his design in their cars shortly thereafter. This set him on a difficult, years-long process of suing Ford. His all-consuming desire for justice would cause his wife (Lauren Graham) to leave him and drive him to a nervous breakdown.
The film is the directorial debut of longtime producer Marc Abraham, with a screenplay by Philip Railsback. Kinnear, in films such as "Auto Focus" and "Little Miss Sunshine," has always been at his best when he turns his natural cockiness inside-out and reveals the insecurities inside. Here, he tries so hard to submerge himself behind Kearns' schlumpiness and bristly demeanor that he comes across as cold and detached. His performance is admirable, in a way, but somehow misses the mark if for no other reason than the effort shows too clearly -- it isn't natural, it's work.
The film is really designed to be Kinnear's showcase, but there are some solid supporting performances as well, not the least of which being the rather ridiculous hairpiece worn by Dermot Mulroney. Graham, as Kinnear's wife, with her wry smile and wounded eyes captures the way in which her love never falters but her faith does.
Special mention must be made of Alan Alda, who, as he did in "The Aviator," is able to turn his image as a sweater-wearing nice-guy on its head. Here he appears as a sledgehammer lawyer with a velvet touch, and though he has only two scenes and a scant few minutes of screen time, his impression in the film is indelible.
The film would have that Kearns' sacrifices -- his marriage, his career, his relationship to his kids -- are all worthwhile. As the story dances around the issue of whether what he is doing is somehow morally right but practically wrong, Railsback and Abraham never quite know how far to push the character into true unlikability, or how to grapple with the deeper implications of Kearns' actions beyond a simple David versus Goliath divide.
The film is based on a 1993 New Yorker article by John Seabrook, which takes an overall less positive view of Kearns' fight, adding much more shade and nuance to his tenacity and giving a fuller sense of the passage of time and also the maniacal personal destructiveness of his lawsuit.
The title comes from a concept used to legally define the work of an inventor. The "flash of genius" is the aha moment when a cartoon lightbulb goes off above a person's head. According to Seabrook's article, this has come to be countered by the "doctrine of nonobviousness," which contrasts someone's moment of inspiration in relation to whether others might reasonably have reached the same conclusions given the same set of tools.
Overall, the problem with "Flash of Genius" is that it wants so desperately to be a Hollywood-style story of the little guy triumphing over the big guy that it races past much of the subtlety of Kearns' story, smoothing things out so that it wouldn't be a spoiler to reveal the ending (though I won't) because it's blatantly marching in from a mile away.
"Flash of Genius" wants so much to be liked, even with its prickly, difficult hero, that it misses the mark of nonobviousness necessary not only for a patent, but also for a thrilling, original work.
"Flash of Genius." MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes. In general release.