It’s the first day of school and Greg Kinnear, as a college engineering professor, writes the word “ethics” on the blackboard for his students to ponder.
Obviously, this will be important to this character and to his story. It’s also just one of many examples of director Mark Abraham spelling out for the audience exactly where he’s going with “Flash of Genius,” a bland David-and-Goliath tale of corporate greed and deception that’s based on true events.
Kinnear stars as Dr. Robert Kearns, married father of six and inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper in 1960s Detroit. Someone had to figure it out — the guys at the Ford Motor Co. had been tinkering for a while with little success. But then when Kearns came along, the company liked his makeshift contraption so much, it stole the thing away from him and perfected it without giving him credit (or a cent).
“Flash of Genius” is the long, arduous story of the legal battles and family sacrifices Kearns made in the name of truth, justice and all that is right in this world. There’s something quaint about how old-fashioned this little guy’s fight is — and Kinnear is often so aw-shucks in his Midwesternness, it sounds like he’s doing a Jimmy Stewart impression.
Always one with a flair for comedy, Kinnear is stronger toward the end of the movie, when Kearns nervously serves as his own lawyer in court; the absurdity of these scenes provides some desperately needed laughs. You know the line about how a man who represents himself has a fool for a client? It’s like that.
But we know that he fought and won, and Abraham, a longtime producer directing for the first time from a script by Philip Railsback, does little to boost suspense.
The movie touches on the ways in which Kearns’ single-minded quest for recognition damaged his family (he was briefly hospitalized for a mental breakdown), but it doesn’t make him too tortured or off-putting because, you know, we’re still supposed to root for him to succeed. It’s a tough balance to strike, and “Flash of Genius” never makes him entirely convincing in either direction.
Lauren Graham is likable as always but seems miscast as Kearns’ dutiful wife, Phyllis, who finds she can only tolerate his obsession for so long. You want to see her in a livelier, sharper, more subversive role — she was completely great in “Bad Santa,” for example. Dermot Mulroney doesn’t get much to do as Kearns’ connected friend who tries to help him sell his invention, but at least he’s not in a romantic comedy this time.
But Alan Alda has a couple of standout scenes as Kearns’ lawyer and, after a while, he sounds like the only person who is making any sense. As Kearns’ lawsuit drags on, Ford executives just want to make it go away, and offer him increasing amounts of life-changing money. Kearns won’t even begin to consider it, which is hard to fathom, and in feel-good movie fashion, his kids support him all the way.
There’s a fine line between standing up for yourself and selfishness, and “Flash of Genius” drives right over it.