Director Marc Abraham tells story of common man with 'Genius'

October 03, 2008|By michael sragow | michael sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

John Seabrook, the author of the original New Yorker story about Bob Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, loves the movie adaptation with the same name, Flash of Genius. It retains every pungent line Seabrook put on paper, no matter how outlandish.

It's exhilarating in an authentic, pathos-streaked way to see Kearns, through Greg Kinnear's inspired characterization of a wary obsessive, representing himself during his trial against Ford Motor Co. for stealing his design. It's sad, uplifting and hilarious all at once to hear him tell the jury that he wears a badge that says "inventor."

Fidelity isn't why Seabrook is so pleased with this movie. "It was always my fear that a film version would turn it into just another underdog story," Seabrook says, "rather than a nuanced tale that ends with the reader unsure of what Bob Kearns has really won."

A nuanced tale is exactly what producer-turned-director Marc Abraham was after. When he read Flash of Genius, Abraham knew this was the movie to make his mark with as a director.

"I love stories about common guys," Abraham says. "They're my favorite kind of story. And I think I understand it. ... I drove beer trucks in Fort Knox, [Ky.], and worked in a linen factory in Brooklyn. ... I hold nothing higher in my esteem than an average guy doing what he has to do well."

So it's a pleasure to report that Flash of Genius is the most distinctive dramatic-feature debut since Bennett Miller's Capote. And Kinnear has the versatility and power in this film to rival Philip Seymour Hoffman. He gets the way Kearns turns his legal quest into an addiction that alienates him from his family and leaves him feeling impotent and immobilized.

Kearns and his wife, Phyllis (Lauren Graham), are sitting on a porch, watching their kids frolic on the lawn, when he asks her what makes a man successful. She says that when she sees the kids she thinks he is successful. Kearns is oblivious to her. Graham's embodiment of Phyllis' profound disappointment matches Kinnear's portrayal of Bob's emotional cluelessness.

The movie is full of glancing scenes that are also stunning. In Abraham's ensemble work, he conveys the way kids can develop a distance from an unstable parent like Kearns, then fill that gap with humor and sympathy - and doubt.

Visually, the movie is sure-footed and expressive. Abraham unobtrusively exploits every trick in cinematographer Dante Spinotti's book, including a hand-held camera that captures the intimate jitters of Kearns' family and friends and a spectrum that captures the gray-greens of real life.

A native of Lexington, Ky., and a graduate of the University of Virginia, Abraham fell in love with movies in his teens, and nursed ambitions to be a writer and screenwriter. He stumbled into production when the godfather of his oldest daughter dropped the Roddy Doyle novel The Commitments in his lap and A-list director Allan Parker brought the movie off with panache.

After scraping together a living selling TV scripts, he found he was game for learning a movie producer's craft - and he was good at it. The Commitments was a trans-Atlantic success, and his later credits include the commercial smash Air Force One (1997). But Abraham always thought he would write and direct as well as produce and finance films.

In Seabrook's Flash of Genius, what snagged Abraham's creative instinct as well as his personal identification was the way Kearns, as a character, toyed with his sympathy. Most people he talked to saw Flash of Genius as an industrial Rocky story, with Kearns going to the mat against Ford and the rest of the industry not for monetary compensation (at one point Kearns turned down $30 million) but for credit.

Abraham says, "This movie isn't just about a windshield wiper. It's about principle; it's about justice and injustice. In my mind I'm going in a direction not everybody sees; some even think I've lost my marbles. But I think it's brilliant. Most stories that center on David vs. Goliath or a whistle-blower, what are they about? ... Someone has put plutonium in a town's water and the kids are getting crippled. Then you have to deal with two things: the weight of the issue and the real, underlying subject matter. Here it's just the one. I mean, we could not live without the guy who invented the brake; we could live without the guy who invented the intermittent wiper."

Abraham never lost sight of Seabrook's concern that an audience should ponder what Kearns might lose as well as gain in his struggle. Abraham says, "When my sister and I would get into a fight, my grandfather used to say, 'I don't care how thin you slice it, there's always two sides to a story.'

"Bob Kearns is a flawed character. So all of a sudden, not only do I have a story that's right up my alley, but I don't have to tell it about some saintly character that I don't believe in."

Abraham loves the movies of Frank Capra, but to me he's more like Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity), an artist who subsumes his art in his material. His unrelenting empathy and intelligence elicit tip-top work from his cast. (Alan Alda as the inventor's lawyer and Dermot Mulroney as Kearns' partner and friend are superb.)

Without a whiff of the show-off, he exudes the visual energy that goes into making a real movie. In the courtroom, Kearns explains that Charles Dickens didn't invent the commonplace, ordinary words that went into "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." He put them into a new order.

Out of such plain materials as a windshield wiper, an inventor and a courtroom trial, Abraham has made one of the most original and memorable American movies of the year.

Flash of Genius

(Universal Pictures) Starring Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Alan Alda. Directed by Marc Abraham. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Time 110 minutes. ****

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