Wearing its convictions about deception, creativity, and the importance of being a really good daddy on its shopworn sleeves, Father of Invention traces the slow but inevitable personal and profession redemption of disgraced infomercial king Robert Axle (Kevin Spacey). Having become a billionaire creating cheesy product hybrids known as “fabrications,” a word that the script feels obligated to point out also means “lies,” and then been sent to jail after one of his gizmos maimed countless consumers, Axle remerges with long hair, a scruffy goatee, and an industry scarlet letter affixed to his chest. Incapable of maintaining a job at big-box retailer Family Mart, he winds up spending most of his time living and sparring with his daughter Claire (Camilla Belle), whom he never paid any attention to as a child, as well as bickering with Claire’s roommate Phoebe (Heather Graham), a belligerent caricature who introduces herself at dinner parties with “I’m a lesbian!” That sort of phony human behavior, which, with regard to Phoebe, is made even phonier by subsequent revelations about her actual emotional state, permeates Trent Cooper’s film, which operates by a musty playbook in which Robert repeatedly stumbles in his attempts to reignite his career until inspiration comes in the symbolism-underlined form of a gadget watch that also functions as a wireless tyke leash—in other words, something that helps parents not lose sight of their kids.
As it indulges in tame pratfalls from Johnny Knoxville (as Axle’s Family Mart boss), two separate kicks to the crotch, and other shrill farcicality, Father of Invention practically courts groans through maudlin preachiness about the value of being an attentive parent. Not only does it take Axle a long time to learn that lesson, but as befitting the film’s toothless fairy-tale uplift, when he does finally grasp the importance of fatherhood, it has an amazingly positive effect on his job prospects. Axle butts heads with his ex-wife (Virginia Madsen), who’s blown through all his money on philanthropy and a lousy music career, while palling around with her supportive new boyfriend (Craig Robinson), but there’s no spark or humor to these situations, just the sense of capable actors trying to make the best of a hopeless situation. Amid one scenario after another that requires him to unsubtly telegraph his every emotion and reaction, Spacey sells Axle’s desperation and eventual salvation as best he can. Yet the star’s job is ultimately no different than that of his character’s—namely, earnestly pitching an idea that, underneath its spiffy exterior, is just a chintzy amalgamation of prior, better ones.