As “My Year with Greg Kinnear” is still young and we’re only four movies deep, now is the perfect time to recap the project so far:

  • In his most recent movie, Brigsby Bear, Greg Kinnear (GK) showed us that he can sport an epic beard, improvise his own masterful prop work, and out-Skywalker Mark Hamill.
  • From his first movie, Sabrinawe learned that GK is a southpaw who surprises Harrison Ford with a swift uppercut and saw him show an impressive amount of charm and confidence in his debut.
  • For 2003’s Stuck on Youwe were asked to significantly lower our IQ to enjoy a ridiculous comedy–but were rewarded with GK’s amazing singing.

All of these movies are united by genre (they’re on the comedy spectrum), and the unique charm GK brings to each role.  When my mother-in-law came to town to watch a GK film (and spend time with her granddaughter of course), I flipped the script by choosing a drama wherein Kinnear’s character lacks charm.  I chose Flash of Genius, a biopic on Netflix in which GK plays Robert Kearns–inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper.  Kearns becomes so hyper-focused in his work that familial bonds are severed and he loses all charm over time.  I figured, if GK can pull off this role, he can win over my mother-in-law and any viewer.  Did he do it?  Did my mother-in-law become a GK convert?

Well, her two big takeaways from the film were that it was a good story and that Kinnear’s wig was extremely fake.  As to the strength of the story, we watched Flash of Genius in two parts because, let’s be real, parents only have time for 1 hour of TV-time per night.  The first half was so engrossing that my wife and mother-in-law lost track of time, and I had to stop the movie as 11 pm neared.  I call that a big success, so let’s dig deeper.

Windshield Wiper Man Flash of Genius (2008)

Flash of Genius was produced & directed by Marc Abraham, and written by schmohawk Philip Railsback.  Railsback earns schmohawk status, because his original title for his script was “Windshield Wiper Man.”  This title was clearly intentional, chosen over “Flash of Genius” which was the title of the New Yorker article that was his inspiration.  I mean….did he want his script to be buried forever or made into a movie that no one ever saw?  Maybe he thought the title was witty and alliterative…but no, no it’s not.  Even Kinnear wasn’t hooked by this inane title, only finding the project remarkable after reading the script.  But enough about that.

Flash of Genius stars GK as teacher/inventor Robert Kearns, Lauren Graham as his wife Phyllis, and that guy from the X-Files (Mitch Pileggi) as the Ford executive who steals Robert’s invention.  Robert & Phyllis live a typical midwest family life in 1960s Detroit; the couple has six kids and Robert teaches engineering courses at Wayne State.  At home, Robert is an amateur inventor who recruits his kids into his projects.  On one rainy drive home from church, Robert has the idea–the “flash of genius”–to invent an intermittent windshield wiper.  At the time, wipers had a constant speed with no pauses between swipes.  Inspired by the pauses between blinks in the human eye, Robert wants to invent a windshield wiper that would space out its swipes.  Like, you know, the windshield wiper we take for granted every time we drive a car.  So he tinkers with electrical circuits and gathers the family to bear witness to his invention:

Kearns family man
Movie family life looks good on you, Greg. Photo credit: Universal Pictures.

Robert presents his “Kearns Blinking Eye Wiper” to Ford Motor Company.  [The theme of Flash of Genius seems to be things getting re-named.  Can you imagine if we all referred to the windshield wiper as the “Kearns Blinking Eye Wiper?”]  Ford executive Macklin Tyler (Pileggi) is impressed, and strikes up a handshake deal with Robert.  But once Macklin receives a demo unit, he backs out of the deal and Ford (surprise, surprise) starts releasing cars with intermittent wipers.

The rest of the movie focuses on the lawsuit Robert files against Ford.  Pursuing this lawsuit takes many years and a huge personal toll on the Kearns family.  Robert receives settlement offers from Ford of $250,000, $1,000,000, and $30,000,000 but he snubs them all.  He demands recognition for his invention.  His obsession with recognition costs him his wife (she and his lawyer leave him after he declines the first settlement offer), his job, and his sanity (he is briefly institutionalized).  Eventually, Robert gets himself his coveted court date, represents himself, and somehow wins!

The first 50 or 60% of the movie is a very average biopic, where the acting performances can’t fully shine above rushed storylines and omitted scenes.  But the last third is much better, as the movie slows down to focus on Robert’s court case and GK’s performance is at its peak.  My mother-in-law is right that the story is very interesting, as would any story be about a man who is more obsessed with a windshield wiper than his wife.  (Sadly, the silliness of a windshield wiper obsession is infinitely more watchable than the many real-life scientists who idolize career and Nature papers over family).

Speaking of Phyllis Kearns, we need to acknowledge the greatness of Lauren Graham.  In many of her roles (Gilmore Girls, Parenthood, Flash of Genius), Graham excels as the strong woman who emerges from a crappy marriage.  This movie still perfectly frames the rift Robert’s obsession with the blinking eye/wiper creates in his family:

blinking
Sorry sweetie, blinking is more fascinating than you in jammies.  Photo credit: Universal Pictures

I wish Graham had more screen time, as she was excellent in her role.  Her last scene was wonderfully acted, a scene in which she is happy Robert has finally won his recognition but also wordlessly acknowledges that she’s not coming back.

You can take the Charms out of Lucky, but not out of Greg Kinnear!

So what about Kinnear’s performance?  First, his epic wardrobe is highlighted by a very strong suit-and-hair-game.  Y’all can see his artificial widow’s peak in the previous pictures, but here’s his money suit:

kinnear salesman
GK and polyester suits are a match made-in-heaven.  Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

He wears many other suits in the movie, all very 60s/70s and all very stylish.  Kinnear acts in several movies set in the 60s & 70s so this wardrobe becomes very familiar to him.  As he says, “I’m on a bad-clothing run, I don’t know what to tell ya…between ‘Auto Focus,’ ‘Invincible’ and [‘Flash of Genius’] there’s a lot of polyester going on. Unfortunately, the clothing industry back then discovered synthetics, and were not afraid to use it.”  Oh Kinnear, always humble and always stylish.

Of Kinnear’s acting performance, it is solid but not his most remarkable.  He fully embraces the role of a man-obsessed, while making it sympathetic.  Even though Robert Kearns was blinded by his own obsession, he still cared for his wife and kids.  It’s remarkable that, even after the breaking apart of Kearns’ family, his kids still spent time with him, rallied around him, and even helped him with his court case.  Kinnear’s performance reflects this warped family devotion, and he can’t completely take the charms out of Robert Kearns’ character (or Lucky Charms).

To this point, Kinnear’s best scene is in the courtroom when he puts himself on the witness stand.  In this scene, he physically switches between the roles of witness and interrogator (remember he’s representing himself) by standing to ask questions and sitting in the box to answer.  It’s every bit as humorous as it should be, made extra-great by Kinnear’s natural dorkiness.  But the scene also carries emotional heft, as Kinnear-as-Kearns describes that the original inspiration for his idea didn’t come from a “car trip in the rain” but the night of his honeymoon where he popped a champagne cork into his eye.  In sum, Kinnear gives a great performance as Robert Kearns but I prefer him in comedies where his dorkiness shines brighter and these scenes are more of the norm.

Summary

  • Flash of Genius is a great movie for the whole family.  It’s on Netflix, so please use it as a gateway to help family and friends discover the magic of Greg Kinnear.
  • Kinnear gives a solid performance in Flash of Genius, adding tragedy and sympathy to the story of Robert Kearns.
  • If GK is in another biopic inspired by a New Yorker article, I hope it’s as chef Damon Baehrel from “The Most Exclusive Restaurant in America.”  I’d love to see Kinnear play a self-hyped chef of a fake restaurant.
  • I still prefer Kinnear in comedies such as Sabrina, and my ranking on the *BRAND NEW* Kinnear Meter reflects that.  Feast your eyes on the new Kinnear Meter, whose idea was largely my amazing wife’s:

    Kinnear Meter
    The Glorious Kinnear Meter!  I’ll rank each newly-reviewed Kinnear movie on a scale from dumpster fire (Kinnear Jeer) to solid gold (Premier Kinnear).  I have added Sabrina to this week’s meter for perspective.
  • Next up:  We have to, have to, have to get to Kinnear’s religious movies.  So get excited for Salvation Boulevard .  Just watch the amazing trailer for this Sundance selection and then rent it on Amazon.

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