Flash of Genius

Has Greg Kinnear ("Little Miss Sunshine," "Anyone But You," "Baby Mama," "You've Got Mail" and "Dear God") finally found a role that might earn him a long-overdue Oscar nomination?

Kinnear's portrayal of Bob Kearns -- the Detroit-based engineering college professor who invented what would later be called the Inter- mittent Windshield Wiper -- is a lesson in Acting 101. He plays a family man, a part-time inventor, a father and a friend. In his opening scenes, Kearns discusses ethics with his college class, drawing the parallel between the engineer who invented the valve for the first mechanical heart and the engineer who invented the valve that made the gas chambers so lethal. He explains that engineers have many instances where they are confronted with ethical dilemmas.

When he presents his -- what he calls the "Blinking Eye" -- windshield wiper to Ford Motor Company, they (verbally) offer a partnership, with him as the manufacturer. Once he has provided them with a copy of his prototype, they abruptly terminate the deal, leaving him hanging out for astronomical setup costs, the complete collapse of his business plan and personal humiliation. Despite their rejection, he soon sees his wipers on all the new Ford cars.

When he attempts to sue them, he wades into a lengthy (12-year) legal battle, during which they bury him in rooms-full of paperwork, delay each step of the process, try to avoid a jury trial and wait for his patents to expire. (One reviewer described his labors "Sisyphean." I wish I'd thought of that!) The futility of filing a lawsuit against one of the Goliaths of American industry costs him his marriage (with six children), his friend- ships, and his job at the college. During this trying time, he suffers a well-earned nervous breakdown.

Each step of the way, Ford offers ever-increasing financial settlements, but the money doesn't interest him as much as the need for validation: a public admission from Ford that they lied to him and stole his design. His single-minded stubbornness is maddening...to his wife Phyllis, played by Lauren Graham ("Gilmore Girls" and "The Pacifier"); to his friend Gil, played by Dermot Mulroney ("Zodiac," "The Wedding Date" and "The Family Stone"); and to his attorney, played by Alan Alda ("The Aviator" and "Resurrecting The Champ").

You will love the long-delayed jury trial during which Kearns appears as his own counsel with his children serving as his legal staff. His use of the Charles Dickens classic, "A Tale of Two Cities," along with a small paperback dictionary, is both creative and a key moment, and Kinnear plays "earnest" like nobody's business!

This satisfying but poignant little film has no blowie uppie stuff, no sweaty love scenes, no car chases, no gun shots, no blood or guts. Instead we watch a man of integrity fight for what's right. We see Kinnear age before our very eyes, we watch his children become teenagers, and he shows us the personal price Kearns paid, when he single-handedly took on a corporation that had deep, deep pockets... and shallow, shallow ethics.

We left the theatre subdued, but happy.