Dr. Robert Kearns built a better windshield wiper.
The world, as the old mousetrap proverb goes, did not beat a path to his door. That's because the Ford Motor Company stole it from him.
"Flash of Genius" is the rousing movie about what it took for one highly principled engineer to get a court of law to agree that's what happened. It's tempting to steal an old Bobcat Goldthwaite jape and call it "the 'Citizen Kane' of windshield wiper movies," but it's really much too good for that.
In fact, there's now a kind of fine new tradition of politicized neo-Capra movies about what might be called Intellectual Property Heroes -- little guys with expansive ideas battling corporate rapacity and/or corruption (and sometimes themselves). Think "The Insider" mixed with "Erin Brockovich" and "Tucker" and, if you're in the mood, throw "A Beautiful Mind" into the mix, too, as a clever new way of investing mental work with something like glamour.
"Flash of Genius" isn't the equal of any of those movies, but it's good enough.
Kearns is the kind of engineering professor who teaches ethics above all -- that there were both engineers who invented the replacement heart valve and the Auschwitz gas chambers. The difference was that one helped save lives and the other helped slaughter them.
Kearns was brilliant and naive, then, when he happened upon a way to do what Detroit's automotive giants had spent years looking for: a workable variable-speed windshield wiper. Kearns called his working model "the blinking eye." He wanted himself and an old friend to manufacture it together. Unfortunately, they went to the Ford Motor Company with the idea first in the hope of securing financing.
By the time Ford weaseled him out of a working model to study, the invention was no longer his. The company reneged on its promise to do business with him and the next time he saw his invention, it adorned some handsome new Mustangs.
What followed was a life almost completely undone by an ethical man's utter inability to make any deal with Ford that didn't cede the original idea was his and his alone. So the film turns into a powerful little fable about creativity vs. corporate rapacity -- and if there's any subject some people understand in Hollywood, it's that one.
As the current TV commercial might have it, this is the movie this year you "never saw coming." Who, among us, could possibly imagine an emotional investment in a movie about the invention of a new kind of windshield wiper?
That's because the movie is well written; deftly and realistically directed (by producer Marc Abrahams in his directorial debut); and marvelously performed by Greg Kinnear and Lauren Graham, as Kearns and the wife who, at long last, falls off her husband's long legal crusade.
If you think about it, Kinnear, up to now, has been the movie star's equivalent of a brilliant new design for a windshield wiper -- a great idea that needed development and decent corporate commitment.
He has so often been good but always in risky movies (as Bob Crane in "Auto Focus") or little ones ("Little Miss Sunshine") or in supporting roles ("As Good as it Gets," Oscar nominated).
Despite gaining fame as the primal snotty wisecracker on the E! Network's "Talk Soup" -- and continuing on NBC's "Later With Greg Kinnear" -- he's probably too intelligent and gentle as an actor to become a true-blue movie star racking up monster box office. And yet here he is, with all the justice in the world, in a major studio movie with his name listed above the title.
Which, by the way, isn't the rhetorical overkill that it sounds but rather a crucial legal phrase in American patent law.
Not exactly a subject you ever thought you'd see a graceful little film about but, by God, here it is.
FLASH OF GENIUS
3 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Alan Alda and Dermot Mulroney
DIRECTOR: Marc Abraham
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for language.
THE LOWDOWN: Inspirational movie about the legal, family and mental struggles of the highly principled engineer who invents the variable-speed windshield wiper only to see it pirated by the Ford Motor Company.