October 6, 2008

REVIEW: Flash of Genius (C+)

I had to do a little background research on Flash of Genius before I saw it, if only to confirm that it was actually a movie about windshield wipers. A cast led by Greg Kinnear (Ghost Town) and Lauren Graham ("Gilmore Girls") was appealing enough, so with a healthy dose of curiosity I found myself in a packed preview screening a couple weeks ago for a movie that, well, was indeed about windshield wipers. Excuse me, intermittent windshield wipers.

Adapted from this 1993 New Yorker article by screenwriter Philip Railsback, Flash of Genius tells the true story of Bob Kearns (who died in 2005), an engineering professor and amateur inventor who invented the intermittent windshield wiper in 1962, only to see the the local automakers in his native Detroit, including Ford and Chrysler, effectively steal his invention and begin permanently featuring the windshield wipers that we all take for granted today.

Maybe take a break here, have a glass of water and let your heart rate get back to baseline. Make sure you're prepared for the excitement coming later in the legal proceedings.

For a movie like Flash of Genius to work it needs to evoke sympathy from the viewer, but unfortunately in this case we feel sorry for the wrong person - Kearn's wife, Phyllis (Graham), who saw her husband devote well over a decade of his life to fighting Ford for the due credit for his invention. Assuming his efforts were in vain (Kinnear has compared Kearns' fight to "taking on Google today"), Phyllis somewhat understandably left him and ended up caring for their six children on her own. You probably know what happens at the end of the story, as it wouldn't make for a very good movie if it didn't end in the usually predictable fashion.

It's not that the life and legacy of Bob Kearns isn't an important one, it's just that Flash of Genius doesn't treat it like one. There's a moment, for example, when Kearns is walking to his car in the pouring rain on a dark night. Backed by an ominous musical score, a menacing Ford Mustang growls at the nearest stoplight. As our pulse quickens, Kearns anxiously squints through the storm at the approaching beast as the scene reaches its dramatic climax: the wipers have a 1.75 second pause between cycles. End scene.

If only someone had worked so painstakingly to make a better movie...

Greg Kinnear's performance deserves a better script here (the only bright spot is a monologue delivered by Alan Alda as Kearns' attorney), and Bob Kearns' life deserves a better movie. Somebody thought they had their own "flash of genius" in deciding to turn John Seabrook's article into a movie, but I'm sorry to say the insipid Flash of Genius is an invention we probably could have done without, somewhat like an "As Seen on TV!" product featured in a late-night infomercial. Sounds about right, actually, and I recommend changing the channel.

Writing - 7
Acting - 9
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 4
Social Significance - 5

Total: 39/50= 78% = C+


  1. Flash of Genius is nothing less than TERRIFIC. Besides being a compelling story, it also celebrates INVENTION. Garage Inventors have made this country great--their innovation, creativity and ingenuity are what set this country apart from the world. And don't think garage inventors are only from a time gone by--check out the book "GADGET NATION: A Journey Through The Eccentric World of Invention" (www.gadgetnation.net) it showcases more than 100 off-beat gadgets and the inventors behind them. From Bird Diapers to Slippers with headlights--its a fun read filled with information--and it honors today's garage inventors as they reach for the American Dream.

  2. Hmm, interesting point, Ross. This movie might possibly have been worse had somebody actually made it in their garage. Not by much, though.


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