Knight at the Movies - Archives
Greg Kinnear drives an old fashioned David vs. Goliath picture, the Facebook generation gets its self-defining movie
Have Greg Kinnear’s good looks and affable onscreen persona obscured for movie audiences the fact that he’s given one great
performance after another? His excellent work may get taken for granted not just because of his matinee idol handsomeness but
also because he’s a subtle actor, not an Al Pacino-Kevin Spacey-Dustin Hoffman scenery chewing kind of performer, whose specialty
has become finding complexities in a broad range of likeable everyday man characters. Watch the emotions that go through his
face as he gets bad news over a pay phone in Little Miss Sunshine, his interplay with Morgan Freeman in Feast of Love, or his portrait
of the sex addicted sitcom star Bob Crane in the under appreciated Auto Focus as three cogent examples. Now he plays another of
his likeable but complex characters in Flash of Genius, the true story – get ready – of the man who invented the intermittent
windshield wiper and had his invention stolen.
The movie, a classic David vs. Goliath story, begins in the mid 1960s when Kinnear as Bob Kearns, a college professor and
mechanical engineer has the idea, the flash of genius, one rainy afternoon that windshield wipers should have more than two speeds
– they should work like a blinking eye. Back at home in his workshop, away from his adoring kids and patient wife (Lauren Graham),
Kearns tinkers around until he’s successful. Living in Detroit, home of the big three auto manufacturers, Kearns seems to be in the
right place at the right time. He reaches out to his friend Gil (Dermot Mulroney who wears the hip 60s clothes and Monkees haircut
with finesse) whose company works closely with the large automakers to try and sell his invention. Ford agrees to take a look at
Kearns’ invention and seems ready to climb aboard, even agreeing to Kearns’ intention to manufacture the wipers himself.
But then the bottom drops out – Ford backs out of the deal and Kearns, having spent thousands, is financially busted. Worse, he
discovers by chance that Ford has bypassed his operation and installed his invention in their automobiles (this scene which occurs
during a glittery auto show display in front of Ford reps is the visual highlight of the film). Broken, but not beaten, Kearns vows to
fight. But in a company town the odds against him are much worse and soon friends and family are put to the test. The stolen idea
hits him so badly it literally drives him crazy and he ends up in a nut house. When he returns home he’s cowed but ready to fight
again. Especially when a hotshot lawyer (played in typical smarmy fashion by Alan Alda) tells him he’s got a case. But even the
lawyer, getting a big settlement offer, can’t Kearns to back off his principles and walks away. “It’s not about money, it about right
and wrong” Kearns says over and over for 12 years leaving his marriage in shambles as he continues to fight, defending himself in
court and eventually enlisting his children to help him with his legal research.
Eventually, this being a movie in the mold of A Civil Defense, Erin Brockovich, The Astronaut Farmer, and dozens more, we know that
Kearns is going to triumph over his naysayers but the familiarity of the “One man against the System” story doesn’t make it any
less satisfying. Producer Marc Abraham makes his directing debut with the film (after spending years developing the material which
was based on a New York article) and working with a script pared down to the essentials, told in bold strokes (one wonders how
Kearns made a living during all the years he prepares and then tries his case for example) manages to elicit strong portrayals from
his actors. Oddly, though all the characters repeatedly express frustration over Kearns’ intractability, his cranky refusal to give up,
he never seems that way to the audience. Though Flash of Genius is easily Kinnear’s movie all the way, the type that audiences
looking for a familiar story the movies expertly tell should take to their hearts, ironically, here is a character where a tad more
vinegar, a little more scenery chewing and a little less of Kinnear’s likeability and acting subtlety would have helped separate it from
the herd of other David vs. Goliath movies and given it that extra spark of originality – a flash of genius as it were.
Teen nerd extraordinaire Michael Cera of Superbad and Juno and pretty Kat Demmings of The 40 Year Old Virgin, with her Liv Tyler
pouty lips, are the stars of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a big screen adaptation of gay author David Levithan’s teen novel
(he also wrote “Boy Meets Boy,” another story of teen angst). The movie follows high school seniors Nick (Cera) and Nora
(Demmings) through a series of typical teen hi-jinks one crazy night in Manhattan. The picture’s a bit of a miracle, a comic,
poignant winner – a blissful combination of hip, up to the minute teen-speak and attitudes and a slice of urban teen life Writ Large.
Nick & Norah, though a bit too long, nevertheless has got the goods to speak to the FaceBook/MySpace/YouTube crowd in the way
that Fame, Dazed & Confused, Billy Jack, and American Graffiti spoke to previous generations.
The plot has the characters careening (sometimes literally, in Nick’s yellow, beat up Yugo) throughout Manhattan in the way that the
Fame kids did – the city is seen as an opportunity for adventure, a playground to be enthusiastically explored. The plot boils down
to this: Nick, the only straight member of a queercore band (The Jerk Offs) is still depressed over the break up with his girlfriend
and doesn’t see that Norah, who has been retrieving the mix CDs he’s been making for the ex, is The One. After a very raucous
night, the attempts of the other characters, especially Nick’s bandmates, to bring these two together, finally pays off. A trio of gay
characters (Nick’s two bandmates and a hunk the lead singer picks up after singing “I Wanna Screw That Man!” onstage to him) that
tool around in a van and are presented as the most efficient, level headed, and ironically, cool characters in the movie. Mooning
over his lost love, Nick moans to them, “You don’t know what it’s like to be straight. It’s awful” a line that draws one of the biggest
laughs from the audience.
Throughout there’s none of the usual derision leveled at any of the gay characters (at one point Nick describes his haircut lovingly as
the “Ellen DeGeneres”) and now, when the characters want to do something hip and cool they head for a drag queen holiday
extravaganza (in Fame it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show). The one character, Norah’s “sorta” boyfriend, who hurls a somewhat
homophobic remark in Nick’s direction is the villain of the movie who is quickly derided by the others.
None of the “adults” quite gets these movies like the teens they’re made for but that doesn’t mean we can’t still appreciate them
(though it’s hard to look at these characters with their wised up, all knowing stances as teenagers – these kids seem light years
older than we were at this age). And if Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (which also has one of the hottest song soundtracks of the year)
truly represents the values and attitudes of the young ‘uns then I say, let’s put ‘em charge right now.
Of Windshield Wipers and Teenage Angst:
Flash of Genius-Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist
Expanded Edition of 10-1-08 Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.