Flash Of Genius is one of those films that's most remarkable for all the things it doesn't do. There's a big courtroom scene, but no gavel-pounding, witness-twisting, or grandstanding lawyers. The real-life figure at the center of the lawsuit, inventor Robert Kearns, loses his family because he insists on doing the right thing year after year after agonizing year, and yet there's no shrieky "You're tearing this family apart!" confrontation. First-time director Marc Abraham chooses to give Kearns' story a serious, thinking-viewer gloss, creating a film that's unlikely to provoke cheering or nail-biting. It lets audiences think they might actually be watching history as it happened.
Greg Kinnear carries the film with his stellar, controlled, slightly abrasive performance as Kearns, a Detroit electrical-engineering professor with a wife (Lauren Graham), six reasonably well-behaved but chaotic kids, and an idea. As of the film's opening '60s setting, car windshield wipers only have one speed, so they drag and scrape during light rain. Through trial, error, and ingenuity, Kearns invents an adjustable-speed wiper and takes it to the major car companies, with the idea of manufacturing it himself. The reps at Ford, who've been trying and failing to develop something similar, seem bowled over—until they get their hands on a working copy to "test." Then they cut him off cold. A year and a half later, new Fords start hitting the line with Kearns' design integrated, and he starts a David-and-Goliath legal battle that everyone, including his lawyers, says he can't win.
Rather than bringing all this across in big, sweeping beats, screenwriter Philip Railsback and Abraham (a producer with credits ranging from the low of Playing God to the high of Children Of Men) focus on Kearns' family life and personal relationships, and the step-by-step process by which he creates something new, loses control of it, and doggedly keeps fighting for justice at vast personal cost. Their story is far from perfect—years blow by with little sense of time, crucial details are lost, and few characters besides Kearns are distinguished in any way. Most criminally, they hand-wave away some burning, obvious questions about his business relationships and the nature of his patents. Still, Flash Of Genius has all the pleasures of an underdog film and none of the guilt of being pandered, patronized, and fed a feel-good moral. It's a smart movie for grownups, an increasingly rare commodity.