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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Flash of Genius
Flash of Genius
Universal // PG-13 // February 17, 2009
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jason Bailey | posted February 11, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

You've got to hand it to Universal for taking a risk; there probably weren't a lot of major studios lining up to pour millions into the story of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. One would imagine they charged ahead with Flash of Genius because of its broad and over-arching "David vs. Goliath" premise--the little guy takes on the big, bad corporation. But the unfortunate side-effect is that it is, in fact, a story we've seen before, and the knowledge of how these stories go (not to mention how Hollywood works) basically robs the film of any real suspense.

Which is not to say that there aren't pleasures to be found in it. Chief among them is the fine work of Greg Kinnear, very solid as Dr. Robert Kearns, the electrical engineer and college professor who decided the world needed an adjustable windshield wiper and set about figuring out how to do it. His friend Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney) works in the auto industry, so he helps Kearns take the invention to Ford, who express a keen interest but say they need to send the prototype to Washington for safety approval. After he hands it over, Ford suddenly isn't interested; a look at Ford's next round of new models, and their strikingly familiar wiper functions, confirms his suspicions that he's been had.

Kearns soon finds that it isn't simply a matter of getting the auto giant to do the right thing. His battle against Ford stretches out over a dozen years; he engages, and then ignores, a top-flight attorney (good old reliable Alan Alda) who thinks they should take a settlement, he alienates his wife (Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls) and numerous children, he ends up studying patent law and acting as his own attorney.

Most of this is well-done and frequently compelling. Producer-turned-director Marc Abraham shows a nice sense of pace and sure hand with actors, and the story's considerable exposition is natural and nimble. Philip Railsback's screenplay (from an article by John Seabrook) is smart, often funny, and fairly dense, covering plenty of ground. The script also takes some interesting structural risks, particularly an intriguing opening pulled from the middle of the tale.

Performances are also quite solid. Kinnear is entirely believable as an egghead and family man, effectively conveying Kearns' stubbornness, determination, and swift descent into paranoia. Mulroney's role is tricky, often having to play both friend and devil's advocate, but he nails it with aplomb. And Graham, for lack of a less clich├ęd turn of the phrase, simply lights up the screen; she is absolutely charming and frequently heartbreaking, in equal doses.

Unfortunately, the family drama that nearly takes over in the second act isn't nearly as compelling as the corporate intrigue elsewhere in the plot, while the film turns into a bit of a standard "courtroom movie"--with the expected devices--in the third act. By then we're pretty sure where it's going anyway; would anyone really bother to make a movie about a guy who spends a dozen years fighting a giant corporation, only to end up getting crushed like a cockroach?

The DVD

Video:

As should be expected with a recent studio picture, Universal gives Flash of Genius a sharp, good-looking transfer. The 2.40:1 anamorphic frame lushly reproduces the knockout photography of acclaimed cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential), full of vibrant period colors in its hopeful 1960s opening scenes, fading into a subtler, more subdued palate in later years. With no noticeable compression or other artifacts, this is a lovely video presentation.

Audio:

The 5.1 audio track isn't quite as vibrant, but it is still above-average for a talky character drama. Center-channeled dialogue is always clear, while the occasional period music cue and Aaron Zigman's score fill out the sides. The mix also makes full use of directional sounds, particularly the expected heavy doses of falling rain and cars in motion. Overall, a subtle but effective soundtrack.

A Spanish 5.1 track is also offered, as are English, Spanish, and French subtitles.

Extras:

Perhaps due to the film's limp box office reception, Universal doesn't give the buyer much in the way of bonus features. It does include a scene-specific Audio Commentary by director Abraham; the track is thoughtful and insightful, and Abraham comes off as likable and fairly passionate, although it is sometimes dull and pause-prone (a frequent pitfall of the single-person commentary).

The only other bonus is a short collection of Deleted Scenes (4:08 total), which are pretty unessential--most are very brief transitional beats. Abraham's commentary is available on these scenes as well, and it is often necessary; many of them don't make a hell of a lot of sense without his explanations.

Final Thoughts:

Flash of Genius is an interesting film, and its populist take on corporate greed is certainly timely. But as robust as the telling is, and as admirable as its performances are, it often feels like a film that you've already seen. It does its job about as well as it can be done, though, and is worth at least a couple hours of your time.

Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.

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