“Flash of Genius”
At Quality 16 and Showcase
Universal Studios

Courtesy of Universal

4 out of 5 Stars

Engineering students, rejoice: Your movie has finally arrived.

“Flash of Genius” shows that Hollywood is finally able to recognize the dramatic potential of this woefully ignored profession. It’s only fitting that engineers should get their own inspirational film about an eccentric genius who takes a stand against big, faceless corporations. It’s high time for the biopic treatment — normally reserved for alcoholic authors — to be given to a member of the scientific community.

Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear, “Little Miss Sunshine”), the film’s protagonist, certainly is a nerd, but he’s an impassioned nerd. He could act as a role model for engineers everywhere for nothing else than the fact that he landed a wife as gorgeous as Lauren Graham (“Gilmore Girls”), with whom he has six children.

The Kearns family lives in Detroit in the 1960s. General Motors is still the leader of the automotive world. The movie was filmed in Canada, which is a reflection of how little the Detroit of today resembles its former boomtown self. Indeed, the film invokes sad nostalgia for a time when Ford Motor Company was still considered a ruthless, filthy-rich automotive giant. When Bob stumbles onto his million-dollar invention — an intermittent windshield wiper — he takes it to Ford with the excitement of a kid who found the rainbow’s pot of gold.

Bob is an idealist, and has a storybook image of how to handle his invention. He wants to manufacture the wipers himself, and he jovially dubs his family “The Kearns Corporation,” a name he takes quite seriously. What he doesn’t count on is the fact that real corporations never play fair. Bob demonstrates his wipers to Ford but fails to close a deal right away. Several months later, he discovers they’ve played him for a sap when he’s caught in the middle of a rainstorm and spies cars on the road using his wipers. Outraged that he’s been cheated, Bob pursues legal action and begins to lose his grip on reality.

What exactly is Bob fighting for? He’s demanding something so noble it’s almost quaint: credit for his invention. Any sharp mind that has ever felt the sting of someone else stealing their idea can certainly relate to his quest. Yet simultaneously, anyone with any insight into how lawsuits work will be yelling at the screen: “Don’t do it, Bob! It’s not worth the legal fees! You’ll never win!”

It’s an amazing feat that the movie is able to make copyright infringement the stuff of gripping human drama. The idea of a powerful corporation screwing over the little guy is nothing new, but it feels more painful here because we get to know Bob so well. A brilliant mind with a schoolboy’s sense of right and wrong, Bob spirals out of control as a result of his ongoing lawsuit. He loses his family, his friends and his sanity (rendered even more painful by Kinnear’s tender performance), and represents himself by the time his trial finally rolls around.

The climatic courtroom scenes are incredibly suspenseful, even more so because they are such familiar story conventions. This isn’t a movie character we’re watching; he’s our next-door neighbor. He’s shy, awkward and clearly uncomfortable facing his enemies head-on. Yes, he does deliver an inspirational monologue, but this time it actually felt inspiring. When Bob talks about how all he wants is for people to see the little badge on his suit that reads “Inventor,” it’s hard not to get choked up.

It’s strange that these types of nonfiction dramas always seem to increase the importance of what they’re based on. Most people wouldn’t think of Bob Kearns as a man great enough to warrant his own movie. But the lasting impact of “Flash of Genius” is that it makes us care about an ordinary guy who fought for recognition.

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