Film Review Of Flash Of Genius
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/3/09


  The new film, Flash Of Genius, by first time director Marc Abraham, is one of those films that is well made, well acted, well shot, and technically, there is little to argue with. But, it’s still utterly predictable; as predictable as the sports film that features an underdog you just know will win in the end. As with most films that ultimately fail, this film fails for its screenplay. No film can succeed without a good screenplay- one with good dialogue, good characterization, and a good tale. The plot, also, has to come alive, and distinguish itself. Given that this film was based on reality, this constricts, a bit, the play one can have with the reality. So, this is where perspective comes in. Instead of a biopic that tells the whole tale (and at almost two hours in length, this film is 20-40 minutes too long; filled with unneeded passages showing the development of the intermittent windshield wiper, as well as far too much interaction between the lead character, Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear) and his best friend, Gil Previck (Dermot Mulroney), who disappears 40% of the way into the film, only for a token reappearance at end, when- of course, the little guy perseveres and wins his legal case in the end) there needed to be a set pivot point in the man’s life, from which all else could be parallaxed. Now, the problem. It just took a few minutes of researching the life of the real Robert Kearns to see that the film took dramatic liberties with the lawsuit aspect of the tale- Kearns didn’t beat the Ford Motor Company in court- he settled, and then beat Chrysler. There are also other elements about the times that events took place in that are not correct. Why this is important is not because art is truth, or nonsense like that, but because it removes the excuses for screenwriter Philip Railsback that all he had to fall back on was the truth.

  Rather than the predictable cornpone of post-Capran courtroom melodrama, a realistic depiction of Kearns’ marriage to his wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham), would (or could) have been the pivot point needed to parallax this film into a higher plane. In watching the film with me, my wife also noticed a missing element in the film, notably its lack of something higher, and suggested that a filmmaker like a Krzysztof Kieslowski would have been able to do far more with this material. Granted, given Hollywood’s horrid recent tend in not even making many intelligent, mature films, those aimed at the post-30 crowd are likely to be inclined to see only the good in this film, and not the bad.

  The good is the acting of Kinnear, who is truly the modern equivalent to Jimmy Stewart- an everyman, far much more so than Tom Hanks has ever been. Kinnear can do drama like Hanks never can. Graham is also very good, and the fact that she does not reconcile with Kearns, after his victory, is one of the lone bright spots in the screenplay- based on truth or not. But, so much of the second half of the film is wasted on moments that have been slapped together from so many other us vs. them films that only the winsomeness of Graham and the likeability of Kinnear prevent narcolepsy. The principled stand that Kearns makes is an engine for the film, but little else. Mitch Pileggi (of X-Files fame) is good as a scumbag Ford bigwig, and there is potential in familial scenes between Kearns and his six kids (both older and younger sets, as the film takes place over more than a decade), but it is never exploited. Too much time, instead, is wasted on Bob’s failures with his friend Gil, and a lawyer, Greg Lawson, played by Alan Alda, who cares not for justice, just money. One good aspect of the film is that it opens with Kearns dazed and confused, a couple of years after his being screwed by Ford, only to make that opening worthless, with a flashback to how he got there, and then, an hour in, we catch up, and proceed chronologically. This does not work because it is a fence sitting position. Since events before and after proceed linearly, why do we start off with the hiccup? And then, we see the scene play out a second time. The screenplay should have either played the film from beginning to end, or played around with time and perception inside the character’s mind, especially since he did spend time in a loony bin, and after being released from it, according to the film, was never quite the same. Kinnear displays this subtle change in character wonderfully, and may get an Oscar nod for it- a perfect example of how one can see great aspects in a mediocre work of art.

  Reputedly, although the bulk of the film is set in Detroit, is was mostly filmed in Hamilton, Ontario, for too much of Detroit has decayed to the point of no return to stand in for its 1960s heyday, when most of the film is set. The title comes from the Flash Of Genius test for patentability, where the Supreme Court affirmed an invention could come to an inventor out of nowhere, without years of work beforehand. The story comes from a 1993 article, by John Seabrook, in the New Yorker, on Kearns, with the same title. But, facts like that are mere trivia. What can set a film apart and above (aside from the already mentioned ‘hard’ aspects of the art) are the intangibles, something Flash Of Genius just does not have. Why? If one could pinpoint that, they would not be intangibles, and this film would rise a few notches, to the level of films like Inherit The Wind or Erin Brockovich, both films like this, that are definite ‘prose’ works, but works whose prose is more akin to a Herman Hesse or Mark Twain, rather than a soap opera. As for poetry? Perhaps Ford stole that, too. Wouldn’t be the first time, right?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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