Flash of Genius is a conventional crowdpleaser but not, I'm pleased to report, a shameless one. Chronicling the true story of a college professor's fight to reclaim his invention – the intermittent windshield wiper – from the car company that stole it, the film does many of the things you'd expect, but it may also surprise you. Don't let its Telluride placement fool you: this is a staunchly mainstream, unchallenging film, the sort of underdog-vs.-corporate-behemoth story you've seen time and again. But it's a decent rendition, hitting the right notes without insulting our intelligence.
Now, the intermittent windshield wiper is not exactly the light bulb. If you're not familiar with the term, the wiper is "intermittent" in the sense that it can pause between wipes – a problem that apparently puzzled engineers at all the major car companies until Kearns cracked it the late 60s. But part of what's nifty about the film is its ability to create suspense and curiosity around something so seemingly mundane. Kearns' first demo of his device to Ford is exciting in a very goofy way, but exciting nonetheless.
Being vaguely familiar with the plight and ultimate triumph of Dr. Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), I expected most of Flash of Genius to be a legal procedural, the story of how a lone college professor outmaneuvered the Ford Motor Company and won back the rights to his invention. But here's the biggest surprise: until the final half hour, this isn't a courtroom drama but a psychological one. It's not about the thrill of David taking on Goliath, but the helplessness of being pitted against an impersonal, uncaring foe with limitless time and resources. Kearns is consumed by the injustice and the need to fight back, no matter the odds or the toll the battle will take on his wife (Lauren Graham) and their six kids. For a while, the film is less concerned with the logistics of the fight than with its effect on Kearns, and that proves interesting. There's a moment early on when he ruminates on what makes a man a success, and his wife subtly suggests that he should consider his family as well as his invention as part of the success calculus. He ignores her completely, which turns out to be prescient and sad.
To its credit, the movie maintains this theme as it details Kearns' multi-decade battle: there's some redemption for him and his family, but everything doesn't turn out hunky-dory. A nearly 20-year legal war takes its toll. Flash of Genius is at its best when it recognizes that fact, and would have been better had it done more to acknowledge that whatever victory Kearns achieves has to be considered pyrrhic. The legal system doesn't let him down, exactly, but the price of vindicating his rights would have been too high for virtually everyone else.
The last act concerns itself with the inevitable courtroom wrangling. Kearns' lawyer, played with terrific smugness by Alan Alda, ditches him years before the case gets to trial, and the by-now-impoverished inventor is forced to represent himself. The movie has fun with this, particularly when Kearns has to put himself on the stand. We're meant to root for him and marvel at his ingenuity in court as in his makeshift basement laboratory.
This is entertaining enough in the usual ways, with the added bonus that Kearns isn't actually a lawyer. It's also perfectly predictable, and not nearly as interesting as what came before. Does anyone remember David Mamet's The Winslow Boy, another film about a protracted and arguably foolhardy legal crusade for honor and right, and the toll it took on a family? There, the trial and the delivery of the verdict happened off-screen. I wish first-time director Marc Abraham and screenwriter Philip Railsback had had the guts to do the same here.
But what ultimately keeps Flash of Genius in the realm of mere adequacy, I think, is that there isn't much to Kearns beyond his dogged determination. Kinnear's portrayal is endearing, but neither he nor the screenplay ever really gets a sense of the man. He's a generically likable protagonist. Had he been more, the film's attempts to explore his psychological deterioration may have become moving instead of merely intriguing.