Movie Review: Flash of Genius (2008)

ON
Greg Kinnear in Flash of Genius
Photo: Universal Pictures

“My name is Dr. Robert Kearns, I’m a college professor and part-time inventor. This is a schematic of my invention, the intermittent windshield wiper… it took me three decades to fight for it when the Ford Motor Co. claimed it as their own.”

Uh, what? Who cares?

I am sorry, but that was my reaction as Flash of Genius began unfolding I could only think about how this film would best be told as an article rather than a feature film and as it turns out that’s exactly what it is. Flash of Genius is an adaptation of the New Yorker article written by John Seabrook back in 1993. How anyone thought it would be interesting enough to capture the attention of an audience for two hours is mind boggling. The acting and the directing are all perfectly fine. Greg Kinnear is fantastic as Bob Kearns, but none of that saves this film from being boring as sin and non-sensical to boot.

As the opening quote above tells you this film follows Robert Kearns as one day he invents the intermittent windshield wiper, prepares to sell it to the Ford Motor Company and ultimately sees his invention stolen without credit or compensation. Definitely not cool and worth fighting over, but for how long and at what price?

Kearns then spends the next 30 years of his life fighting for recognition for his invention. As he is offered a lot of money, suffers a mental breakdown and destroys his marriage and begins losing touch with his children he won’t accept anything less than a formal admission of theft from Ford. Of course, legal ramifications accompanying an admission of guilt would be astronomical, so obviously he isn’t getting it and in the end he ultimately receives less than Ford’s highest offer, but hey, he got the admission of guilt from a jury of his peers (not the company itself), ultimately “winning” a battle of one inventor but losing 30 years of his life at the same time and never getting the admission of guilt he so desperately wanted from the company that stole it.

You tell me, would you give up 30 years of your life, your significant other and risk your relationship with your three children for a little bit of recognition that overall doesn’t matter when you are being offered millions of dollars to just go on with your life? I understand standing up for your rights, but at some point you have to realize you only have one life to live, this is it, and I am not going to be satisfied watching one depressed little man throw it all away and then call it a victory in the end. The point of Seabrook’s article has this figured out, but the film paints Kearns’ struggle as some sort of victory for inventors. It makes it look like he won something. The final quote in Seabrook’s article as said by Kearns reads, “The moral is that unlawful conduct does pay… I don’t see how any of us could go home to our children and say it does not.” The problem with Flash of Genius is that it doesn’t get it, the money wasn’t a win of any sort. No matter what happened – Kearns still lost. That is the fundamental problem with this movie and where it lost me.

What’s even worse? The film itself and many of the characters inside of it, such as one of Kearns’ lawyers played by Alan Alda, recognize Kearns as an unlikable man. There is some sort of instability in Kearns and while you may want to cheer for him as he was obviously slighted, you also want to tell him to just get on with his life and stop bringing down those around him. But then “they” win you may say. Well, sometimes “they” do. Sorry about that.

GRADE: D