Flash of Genius sounded like a movie where I might develop jaw problems from yawning. But the movie is compelling from first to last. It's endearing, infuriating, inspiring, sad and triumphant. And given its subject matter, the little man against corporate greed, it's also incredibly timely.
Directed by Marc Abraham and adapted for the screen by Philip Railsback from a New Yorker article by John Seabrook, Flash of Genius is the story of Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), a Detroit engineering professor and dedicated family man who aspires to be an inventor. Bob is a quiet, church-going, principled person. He worries about ethics and encourages his students to realize that engineering ability can be put to good use, like the construction of machines that save lives, or bad use, like building the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Bob's basement tinkering has resulted in a handful of patents for items of little import. He seems proudest of a gadget that will drop yellow dye into margarine so that it will look like butter. But then one day in 1967, he has a burst of inspiration and comes up with the idea for the intermittent wiper.
After building a working model in an aquarium, Bob assembles a team to present his invention to Detroit car companies. An acquaintance from church, Gil Privic (Dermot Mulroney), is an affluent auto-parts supplier, and he quickly agrees to work with Bob and help him secure other investors. Mysteriously the film doesn't explain how this comes about the wiper patents end up in Privic's name. But Privic's connections enable Bob to demonstrate his product to the engineers at Ford, and pretty soon he's got himself a deal that will make him a rich man. Only just as soon, Ford welches on the deal, paying Bob not one red cent. And almost immediately thereafter Ford installs the intermittent wiper in its Mustang line.
Put simply, though it's a multi-billion-dollar company, Ford screws Bob Kearns out of the millions he would have earned from his invention because the corporate officers figured they could get away with it. A stubborn man with moral convictions, Bob fights back in the only way he can. He files suit. But the patent courts are clotted with battles over unlicensed product appropriation, and Ford's legal muscle is able to deny him a day in court for years. In the process, the fight for right becomes an obsession for Bob that affects his marriage, his career and his health. For a while, he's confined to a mental institution, a fact that Ford uses to denigrate his credibility when his case finally gets before a jury.
Eventually, Bob's lawyer, Gregory Lawson (Alan Alda), secures a settlement offer of several hundred thousand dollars. (The picture neglects to tell us the lawyer's contingency fee, so we don't really know how much the offer is worth to Bob and his family.) But it's enough money that it will make a difference in their lives, and Bob's wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) very much wants him to take it. But for Bob, the case isn't about money, at least not directly. He wants vindication in the form of proper credit for his invention. As he explains to Gil, 'For you this is just a gadget; for me it's the Mona Lisa."
Flash of Genius is very well served by Greg Kinnear's lead performance. It's almost amazing to remember that he first came to national attention as the smart-aleck host of Talk Soup, his only apparent acting talent at the time was a relentless smirk. Kinnear has long since demonstrated more range in fine performances in Sabrina, As Good As It Gets, Matador and Little Miss Sunshine. But he was a supporting player in those films, and here he's almost the whole show. In fact, the film falters somewhat in failing to develop Bob's relationship with Phyllis (largely wasting the very capable Graham in the process) or in establishing a focal human villain. Still, the picture is smart not just to let its story come down to a winner-take-all trial. Instead, it wonders quite openly whether the sacrifices Bob makes in his 12-year quest for justice are really worth it, even to himself.