Thursday, September 11, 2008

Flash of Genius

Dir - Marc Abraham

Viewed: From the Balcony

[I'll be sending in a couple of reviews away from RFC HQ-US today and tomorrow. Pardon the appearance until I get a chance to fix them up.]

When you tell someone you saw a movie about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper you might get a crooked, bemused look coming back at you. But as unlikely as it might sound, this story of how our wipers learned to be more like eyelids is an absorbing David and Goliath of Detroit story (if David were more of an unstable obsessive, that is). Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear) is driving his family home from church in a light rain when the requisite flash of genius occurs. The rain isn't heavy enough to keep the wiper blades from causing that annoying sound of dry rubber running against the glass. But it is the early 60s and the wipers on cars are only set to one speed. Being a doctor of engineering, Bob heads down to his basement and it doesn't take too long before he has a prototype he calls The Kearns Blinking Eye that allows the driver to set the speed of the wiper blades. Soon enough he has the attention of Ford who along with the rest of the Big 3 have been trying to crack this nut for some time. Unfortunately for Ford, Bob wants to manufacture the Blinking Eye himself. They go so far as to ask him for a price, but once he submits the Blinking Eye for Washington's approval (wipers are a safety device) the cat's out of the bag and Bob is given the old high hat by Ford. Like the song goes, the Big 3 stole his baby.

This results in a sharp decline in Bob's sanity and he rapidly hits rock bottom because a rock bottom must be achieved if this is to be a bio-movie, but Flash of Genius refreshingly gets this out of the way sooner than later when he is helped off a bus by state police as he mumbles about being invited to the White House to see the vice president. Most of this is your standard bio-movie stuff, there's no reinvention or particularly surprising twists going on. The inventor taking on the Big 3 stuff we've seen, perhaps with a bit more zing, in Coppola's Tucker, the disturbed genius bit we've seen with more stylistic flourishes in A Beautiful Mind and let's not forget Capra and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But nonetheless, Flash of Genius pulls you in and keeps your interest as you hope for the best for Bob as he pulls himself back from the brink and continues his endless fight for what's rightfully his. As the years go by and his family leaves him and his lawyer quits because he refuses to accept any monetary settlements Ford throws his way, you begin to doubt him. You start to see him like a domesticated version of one of Herzog's mad men or like the latter years of Lenny Bruce without all the smack; boxes of patent laws and useless paperwork from Ford begin to form a shelter around him.

This all leads to a courtroom showdown that takes place some 15 years after the first meeting with Ford. Little by little Bob has been able to win back his children who've helped him prepare his case and Bob serves as his own counsel for the proceedings with his oldest son at his side. This last third of the movie makes up for some of the more rote parts in the middle by providing some earned and authentically touching moments with Bob getting his friends and family to rally behind him after years of being ostracised. If anyone's had a damaged dad that's been separated from the family there will be many a heartstring tugged during the course of this movie. And as far as courtroom action goes there's some good scenes here even if Bob as his own counsel is played for laughs a little too much.

The solid performances are what pull this above being another yawn filled biography picture. Kinnear has made a nice career for himself by taking odd-ball roles in small pictures like this. This kind of dementia beneath the wholesome surface kind of part is where he excels, much like his Bob Crane in Auto-Focus. It's good also to see Mitch Pileggi here playing to his strengths as the evil face of Ford's greed. Alan Alda is welcome in any picture and it's a testament to Bob's obsessiveness that he can sit across the table from him and not heed his words. I'm pretty sure I'd be helpless against Alan Alda's when he's trying to convince me of absolutely anything. And the list goes on: Daniel Roebuck, Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney -- all underused actors that know how to do the most with the material their given. I'm pretty sure all you'll hear about when this movie gets out there is the quirky idea of a movie about windshield wipers and Kinnear as a possible Oscar nominee. The movie has more to offer than just his performance, it is certainly a crowd pleaser, half the audience was cheering during the court scenes and gave a hearty round of applause when the credits came up at the end, but at it's heart it is a simple family drama. It's a bit clumsy at times, falls into those bio-movie pitfalls with a thud, and about 15 minutes too long, but the movie ended up winning me over.

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