“Your family’s very concerned about you.” Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear) doesn’t flinch when he hears this from a Maryland State Trooper. Even as the officer suggests he get off the bus he’s just boarded, Kearns resists. He’s got something more important on his mind, he says, a meeting with the Vice President in Washington. The camera pushes closer to his face, to ensure you see his eyes are bloodshot and his hair mussed, so you see that his family has reason to be worried bout him.
With a cut back to “Three Years Earlier,” Flash of Genius begins to explain how Kearns came to this sorry state. Specifically, how he was pushed by Big Bad Ford Motors to a precarious mental edge. His story, based on a true one, has a happy ending (the film ends with a court case in which Kearns represented himself against the auto giant), but that’s a long time coming. En route, as the movie shows again and again, Kearns and his family (wife Phyllis [Lauren Graham] and six children) suffer mightily. This means that the saga is more complicated than its trite stalwart-individual-against-the-system scaffolding suggests. Still, the movie sticks mostly to the scaffolding.
An engineer by trade, Kearns is working as a professor at Wayne State when he comes up with the bright idea for the intermittent windshield wiper. If this isn’t an obviously cinematic moment, the film does its best to show a series of cause-and-events: driving in his Ford Galaxie with his family, he sees and describes a need; working in his basement and aided by his exceptionally well-behaved sons, he solves the problem — with apposite swelling score and a glowing smile of approval from sweet, gentle, patient Phyllis. The invention sounds minor, an intelligent tweak to an existing system, until you realize that for decades, all cars come with it. The money is a big deal, certainly, but for Kearns, according to the movie and also accounts by his children, it was never his primary concern.
Instead, he wants credit for his “Mona Lisa,” the proof that he had, as inventors call it, a “flash of genius” in that instant that he saw how to do something that had not been seen or done before. In his excitement, Kearns shows his friend, Detroit Ford dealer Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney), who encourages him to take it to the company. They live in Detroit, after all, so all the U.S, automakers are local employers. In a series of meetings with researchers and then an unnamed “Ford Exec” (Mitch Pileggi), Kearns is convinced to sign a deal with Ford, though he wants to retain manufacturing rights (something the Ford people consider foolish).
After papers are signed and Kearns agrees to let the Ford engineers peep the invention, he is startled to learn they’ve pulled out of the deal. He’s even more alarmed when he sees — in a highly dramatized scene — a line of sample Mustangs roll up in the rain, their wipers intermittent. The Ford Exec has him removed from the showroom by security, Gil shrugs and says he can’t fight Ford, and Kearns is on his own. “They strung us along,” he protests, “and they looked at my work.”
The fight he puts up lasts for 12 years — he invented the wiper in 1963, sued in 1978, and finally made the case in court in 1989. Along the way, he’s encouraged by inventors’ clubs (these nerdy-stereotype representatives, enthusiastic as they may be, are plainly on board to underscore how Kearns is speaking for the “little guy”). The movie sentimentalizes the struggle even as it reveals that Kearns became very difficult to live with. As much as Phyllis and the kids want to support their beloved Bob, he’s absent emotionally and physically (spending long hours researching the case), not to mention investing money in the cause. He’s unable even to comprehend Phyllis’ inevitable rebellion — staged in the kitchen, no less — redefining her decision as, “You’ve stopped supporting me.”
The film’s flat-footed representation of the family’s changes — the kids are played by older actors, Kearns’ hair becomes grayer, Phyllis is wearing wrinkle makeup — is exacerbated by its episodic structure. When a big name lawyer agrees to take the case, Kearns is happy for a minute, then learns quickly that winning is mostly losing. Gregory Lawson (Alan Alda) tells him to take a deal, explaining, “This is justice in this country, justice by checkbook.” Kearns persists, only to find himself visited on occasion by a ratty little fellow named Charles Defao (Tim Kelleher), who offers increasing dollar amounts that Kearns turns down — so nobly.
Bogged down in such plotty clichés, the movie loses what little momentum it has regarding the legal arguments, which are, in themselves, thematically and politically compelling. While it doesn’t dig into the thicket of patent laws, Flash of Genius does raise the question of originality, as Kearns addresses it in his case, based on the “Doctrine of Nonobviousness.” Though the components for the wiper existed before he made it, he argues that he put those components together in a new way. If only his movie had done something similar with its familiar components.