What little tension exists in Flash of Genius stems not from its ho-hum narrative, but from its attempts to fashion a heartwarming tale from a true-life story that, in many respects, wasn’t all that heartwarming. In 1960s Detroit, electrical engineer Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), frustrated by his windshield wipers’ inability to operate at different speeds, independently creates the first fully operational intermittent wiper. It’s a technological achievement that had eluded even the bigshots at Ford, who agree to go into business with Kearns and then, when they learn his plan is to self-manufacture his invention, steal his designs, kill the deal, and infringe his patents by implementing the wipers in their new Mustangs.
Marc Abraham’s adaptation of Kearns’s saga hits all the predictable marks, from Kearns’s overpowering desire to be an important somebody, to wife Phyllis (a charming but miscast-for-the-era Lauren Graham) telling Kearns that he’s a success simply because of his six kids, to its David-and-Goliath conception of Kearns and the Ford villains determined to squelch his lawsuits through intimidation and generous payoffs. Given that Kearns’s story involved him dispatching all adult responsibility, going crazy, and being temporarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, and yet continuing to push forward with his crusade at the expense of keeping his family together, the film’s central problem is remaining true to facts while also keeping inspirational levels high. Flash of Genius‘s solution, ultimately, is to climactically depict Phyllis refusing to return to her husband while also showing that Kearns’s justifiably bitter kids eventually decided to support him, a calculated have-it-both-ways approach where neither way really works, leaving one unconvinced of Kearns’s nobility or the film’s desire to show him in a less-than-flattering light.
Abraham’s direction is, at best, barely functional, full of drab hues and mundane compositions that feel less an outgrowth of his Detroit milieu than the byproduct of a blah cinematographic eye. And while Kinnear’s performance exhibits some unpleasant craziness during the drama-deficient third-act courtroom case, it’s not enough to complicate the general underdog-makes-good fairy tale vibe, with Flash of Genius providing a portrait of obsession-run-amok that largely forgoes Zodiac density for Hollywood Uplift 101 simplicity.