'Flash of Genius,' but Not Drama

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008

"Flash of Genius" is the true story of Kearns v. Ford Motor Co.

At least for the last half-hour it is. It takes a full 90 minutes for the actual lawsuit -- the climax of nebbishy engineering professor Robert Kearns's (Greg Kinnear) quixotic, years-long crusade to force the automotive giant to admit in court that it stole his 1963 design for the intermittent windshield wiper -- to kick in. Up until that point, it's a whole 'nother movie.

Call it Kearns v. Common Sense.

The Quest for Justice v. Cold, Hard Cash.

One Man v. The System. And, at times, One Man v. His Wife (Lauren Graham), His Lawyer (Alan Alda) and His Own Best Friend (Dermot Mulroney).

Take your pick. Any one of those human dramas is more engaging and original than the legal showdown that closes the film, which will feel familiar to anyone who's ever seen any David and Goliath story, from "Miracle on 34th Street" to "Erin Brockovich."

As the woman sitting next to me whispered during the closing credits, "I kept waiting for someone to dump a bag of children's letters to Santa Claus in front of the judge."

Yeah, it's like that.

All the same, it's hard not to root for Kearns. As the bespectacled hero, Kinnear brings a general likability to the role, even if he seems less than fully convincing as a man on the brink of madness. Kearns was briefly hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown in the pursuit of his obsession. Kinnear just never seems all that . . . tortured.

Not that the actor doesn't try. He frets; he furrows his brow; he doesn't shave; he burns through a number of hairpieces as his character ages from a happy-go-lucky prof with a pocket protector to a monomaniac with no job, no friends and no family.

But you know what? Kinnear really doesn't have to work that hard. We love to see movies about little guys who take on the sharks and win. Come on, you didn't think this was a movie about the triumph of the soulless corporation, did you? They don't make too many like that. Besides, the outcome of Kearns's case has been written about extensively, most notably in the long 1993 New Yorker article on which this movie is based.

In the end, "Flash of Genius" abandons its most interesting story line -- Kearns v. Kearns -- for a reliance on formula. Bob Kearns had his work cut out for him. Kinnear's job, by comparison, is a cakewalk. All he has to do is carry off a slightly highbrow version of "Revenge of the Nerds."

Flash of Genius (119 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

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