Little guy takes on an auto giant

Posted: October 03, 2008

It's unlikely that Universal Pictures ordered up the rain that came streaming down as theatergoers left a preview screening of Flash of Genius in Manayunk last week, but it was certainly appropriate.

As folks climbed into their cars and turned on the wipers, it was impossible not to think about Detroit inventor Robert Kearns - the patent-holder for the intermittent windshield wiper and the Job-ian hero of the studio biopic that had just reached its bittersweet but triumphant end.

Kearns was an engineering professor, a churchgoer, a family man - an all-around regular guy, played with all-around regular guyness in Flash of Genius by the master of said roles, Greg Kinnear. In 1967, inspired by a champagne cork that popped in his eye, he designed the prototype for what he called the "Kearns blinking eye wiper" - the very same system now is in just about every car.

After working out the design in his basement - aided by a brood of scrappy kids - and partnering with a friend (Dermot Mulroney) with industry contacts, Kearns presented his invention to the R&D gang at Ford Motors. Things looked promising: Hands were shaken, papers drawn up, space rented where Kearns planned to assemble the wiper systems and supply them to the company. Then . . . then, nothing. Ford wasn't interested any longer, no reason given.

Dreams dashed, Kearns returned to teaching. A couple of years later, as veteran producer/first-time director Marc Abraham tells it in his surprisingly compelling film, Ford put a new intermittent wiper system in its 1969 Mustangs.

Yes, folks, Flash of Genius - a drama about patent infringement!

It is also about a guy who suffers a nervous breakdown, whose marriage falls apart (Lauren Graham is the devoted wife), who hires lawyers, fires lawyers, and perseveres, despite wrecking his life and alienating his kids, battling Ford's phalanx of attorneys and finally, getting his day in court.

The little guy fighting the system, it's downright Capraesque, and Kinnear brings heartbreak and poignancy to the job. There are moments, when Kearns' sanity is in question, where the actor projects mental fragility with just the, well, blink of an eye. And there are moments when Kearns' insanity is not in question - he's clearly gone off the deep end, swimming in paranoia and despair.

It's these unexpectedly dark scenes that balance the more upbeat, formulaic elements that typically illustrate a great American inventor tale.

Flash of Genius has its corn, its conflation, its composite characters. (It also has one great courtroom scene, involving testimony of a Ford engineer and a copy of Dickens' Tale of Two Cities.) But Kinnear does what he's done in the past: You underestimate the guy's acting chops, and suddenly, strikingly, he floors you.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com..

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