"Flash of Genius" is a true-story drama about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. It's a very earnest movie and I don't mean to be cruel, but shouldn't we draw the line on biopics right around here? Can the life struggles of the discoverer of dental floss be far behind? A miniseries on the inventor of the toilet tank ball?
All right, enough with the snark. Anyway, the problem with "Flash of Genius" isn't that the subject is dull but that the movie is. Brought to us by Marc Abraham, a longtime film producer ("Air Force One," "Children of Men") making his directorial debut, the film casts Greg Kinnear as Robert Kearns, an absent-minded professor at Michigan's Wayne State University who battles Detroit for decades after the auto companies steal his invention. A family man (Lauren Graham plays his wife and a gaggle of young actors play his six kids across the decades), Bob's a garage tinkerer who in 1963 tries to build a better windshield wiper after getting caught - skreek-skreek - in a light rain.
What he invents - wipe-pause-wipe - is a widget the auto companies have been working on for years, and the movie never convincingly explains why his widget works where theirs didn't. Naive but ambitious, Bob signs a deal with Ford and plans to manufacture the wipers himself with a friend and business partner (Dermot Mulroney). Then Ford cancels the contract and, surprise, debuts a car with his innovation. Chrysler follows suit, claiming Kearns's patents contain no new concepts and are therefore fair game.
The ensuing quest for justice swallows many years, many teams of lawyers (Alan Alda plays one), and apparently Kearns's entire life. The movie is built on lines similar to 2001's "A Beautiful Mind" - to the point where the hero suffers a mental breakdown as the pressure takes its toll - but Abraham lets his narrative drift in and out of focus. A climactic court trial with Kearns serving as his own attorney provides a few chances to root for the underdog against the corporate meanies, but it doesn't deliver the grand sense of closure the movie is seeking.
Abraham lionizes all-American qualities like inspiration and stubbornness even as they turn into all-American monomania, Kearns barely noticing as wife, career, children fall away in his pursuit of recognition. Crucially, though, "Flash" can't decide whether this is a story of triumph or tragedy. It's both, obviously, but in what specific mixture and why?
Kinnear plays the role with a sort of self-absorbed pep - a Jimmy Stewart hero minus the social graces - but you sense he's searching for a handle on the role the movie's not providing. Obsessed unto fury, the Bob Kearnses of this world may ultimately be closer to Herman Melville than to Hollywood - dark poetry instead of this movie's intermittently sunny prose.