The story of the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper isn't a bad film. But producer-turned-director Marc Abraham, and the writers and star Greg Kinnear, don't give us a reason to care about the lonely, dull quest of the inventor to be paid, and get credit, for the device that changed rainy-day driving forever.
We meet Robert Kearns (Kinnear) in his bathrobe, pulled by police off a Greyhound as he tried to ride to Washington, D.C., to "meet the vice president." Years before, he had lost his invention -- had it stolen, actually. And that wrong ate him alive.
The film then ambles through a long flashback, showing the "eureka" moment when Kearns, an inventor and engineering professor, identified a problem and set out to solve it, with the help of his wife (Lauren Graham) and six kids.
"Look for the un-obvious," he tells his children, obsessing over ways to make a windshield wiper do what a human eye does -- blink at different speeds, adjustable to the conditions of the moment.
He cracks it. He has a backer, his local Detroit Ford dealer pal ( Dermot Mulroney). He has the interest of the Ford Motor Company. And he has a dream, to build the wipers himself, "just to do something important."
Things go well until they suddenly go wrong, and Kearns is left in the lurch by Ford. When he spies wipers on a new Mustang, headed to an auto show, flopping intermittently in the rain, he snaps.
But it's a long, slow snap, like everything else in Flash of Genius. Kearns turns paranoid. He turns on friends, cuts classes he's supposed to teach, struggles to learn the law, camps out in libraries, to "go it alone" as he does battle with The Company in the ultimate Company Town.
Kinnear doesn't give Kearns a lot of charisma, which may be historically accurate but doesn't make for a compelling movie. In Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Jeff Bridges devoured the screen, a showman, a shaman, a man possessed. Kinnear's Kearns does what a lot of Kinnear's more generic characters do -- he suffers and wells up with tears.
The film's sedate pace and ungainly structure (years pass, and more years pass) throw its biggest shortcoming into the spotlight. It lacks a clear villain. History and the studio's lawyers let the filmmakers say "Ford stole this," but they didn't spend the money on hiring a big presence to play the Fat Cat out to squish, or worse, rob and ignore the little man. Alan Alda shows up as a sympathetic attorney with a little edge to him, making the big speech about the ways justice works in America: "You get a check." He overwhelms the film, but also makes it more fun to sit through in his two scenes.
The kernel of a good movie was here, in this story of obsession and an injustice that consumes a victim. But Flash of Genius never rises above the tiny spark of a dry history lesson as period piece, which, in a way, is a final injustice to poor Robert Kearns.