David and Goliath face off once again in this earnest but artless movie about a nerdy amateur inventor who fought a lengthy legal battle against Ford Motors over the claim that the company had stolen his mechanism for a pulse windshield wiper. “Flash of Genius” wants to create an “Erin Brockovich” vibe, but its fractured narrative approach and very low-octane energy level make it less flashy than drab.
A major reason for the picture’s tepidity is the lead performance of Greg Kinnear as Robert Kearns, the owlish Detroit engineering teacher who cracks the problems in getting such a device to operate in his basement lab and then enlists his businessman buddy Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney) to join him in taking it to Ford. Kearns’s only condition is that he be given the contract to produce it for the company. Of course, Ford shafts him, breaking the agreement and installing the mechanism on their new models while freezing him out entirely. Kearns gets a sharp lawyer (Alan Alda) to take on the case, but when the attorney negotiates a deal whereby Ford will pay a settlement but not publicly announce recognition of his claim, Kearns refuses to accept and proceeds with a long, long court fight in which he has to become his own lawyer. Care to guess the outcome?
If it had been punched up a bit, one can imagine that “Flash of Genius” could have become the “Rocky” of the windshield crowd. But this seems to be one of those cases where dramatic effectiveness is inhibited by excessive fidelity to the facts. The script is so anxious to hew to the “real” story that it shuffles the narrative endlessly, shifting the chronology repeatedly in an attempt to add some tension to what’s essentially a fairly predictable tale. (It’s hard to remember a movie in which one so frequently encounters titles like “Six years earlier,” “Four weeks later,” “Two months ago” and the like.) The device doesn’t muddle the storyline, but it does turn it into a sort of perpetual stumbling exercise.
And while the portrait the film draws of Kearns is probably accurate, it certainly doesn’t make for a rousing hero. Kinnear deliberately downplays his usual gregarious nature—the hammy bonhomie you see in “Ghost Town,” among other pictures—in favor of a befuddled, occasionally indignant (and sporadically unbalanced) mien that comes across as unnatural. It’s a theatrical turn against type that’s impressive on the surface but ultimately unsatisfying. The remainder of the cast are curiously bland and forgettable except for Mulroney, nicely natural as the business partner, and Alda, who brings a smarmy authority to the part of Kearns’ lawyer. Alda is so good, in fact, and his character’s argument for accepting Ford’s offer so strong, that it’s difficult to consider Kearns anything but a dope for not taking it. (Kearns’s own performance in court seems anything but stellar, too.)
From a technical perspective, the picture looks like what it is—a low-budget affair that seems to have devoted most of the funds on trying to get the period detail right. Perhaps the occasional murkiness of Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is designed to hide the places where it wasn’t enough. On the other hand, Jill Savitt’s editing stretches matters out to a turgid two hours.
Unfortunately, this “Flash” not only exhibits no signs of genius but barely registers on the competence gauge. It might have served as an adequate cable television movie, but on the big screen this little guy is totally out of his league.