The Amiable, Accidental Star

As a less-than-likable inventor in
As a less-than-likable inventor in "Flash of Genius," Kinnear plays against type. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008

Is it okay to compare an actor to a dog, when you mean it in the best way?

Because there's something even more spaniel-like about Greg Kinnear these days, as he ages a little. Good dog? Great dog. (You know -- the kind that intuits the doorbell before it rings but never barks his head off, and never demands attention?) With his crinkly brow and the graying scruff, Kinnear is still, at 45, almost about to be someone's idea of today's Jimmy Stewart -- but most times he's just there for support.

That's why they use him for cute-husband parts ("Ghost Town"), or for integrity-compromised executives who have to check into forlorn Courtyard Marriotts ("Fast Food Nation"). They use him for parts like the football coach who keeps his cool in a desperate season (as Dick Vermeil in "Invincible") or for playing the unexpected boyfriend of the gal who's long since given up on men (as with Tina Fey in "Baby Mama"). Nice work, and he can get it.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Kinnear and a film director/producer named Marc Abraham are making the rounds in D.C. for their new movie, "Flash of Genius." It stars (actually stars ) Kinnear as Robert Kearns, a Michigan engineering prof who invented the intermittent windshield-wiping device in his basement in the 1960s, and then spent almost two decades suing Ford and Chrysler for stealing his idea. Kearns finally won some $30 million.

Intriguing story, but tough sell.

"Bob Kearns [who died in 2005] is not a likable character, in the usual sense," Kinnear says, sitting a spell in the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton. "Yes, he eventually won some money. Great. But this is clearly not the message. . . . The fight he had is all-consuming. He just couldn't find a bridge to compromise to anything around him -- his children, his wife, his attorneys who are trying to help him. Everything is a struggle. I found myself wanting him to find satisfaction. I'm not sure this movie characterizes him as ever really finding it."

There is no getting around the fact that "Flash of Genius" is about a prideful and enigmatic nerd. Also, there's really a lot about windshield wipers in it ("Only of course it's not just about windshield wipers," Kinnear says). Finally, you never really root for the hero; you're glad for him, but it stops shorts of heroics.

In which case, clips of the movie probably are not destined to be shown at personal motivation seminars -- the kind attended by guys who look just a little like Richard Hoover, the guy Kinnear played satirically in "Little Miss Sunshine," who preached his "Nine Steps" claptrap of self-help positivity.

"You could easily make that upbeat kind of movie out of 'Flash of Genius,' though, with the same story," Kinnear offers. "All you have to do is play the music LOUDER in certain moments, change a few looks from people in the [courtroom] scenes and really leave people much more energized, skipping out of the theater in triumph."

This is Kinnear's first serious, meaty starring part since he played Bob Crane -- the murdered, sex-addicted star of "Hogan's Heroes" in 2002's creepy but intriguing "Auto Focus."

"It's funny when you've done a movie like that, how people say 'I liked"Auto Focus"!' with that emphasis," Kinnear says, half-smiling. "Did the 'i' have to go up several octaves in 'liked,' stretching it out? I l iii ked that movie! Meaning nobody else liked the movie, I guess."

So, anyhow, windshield wipers. The lone inventor vs. the monolithic corporation. Kinnear's performance suggests something much more morose than playing the boyfriend or doofus dad parts. To play Kearns he put on 20 pounds, and quite a lot of polyester, and even more of a sense of gloom. He looks a little like William H. Macy in this movie.

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