We've all known someone like Bob Kearns: nice guy, family man, very bright but a bit distracted, wrapped up in his dreams, wouldn't hurt a fly, the archetypal harmless but decent tech nerd. The Bay Area is full of people like him. As wonderfully portrayed by Greg Kinnear in Flash of Genius, the real-life character of Kearns inhabits the terrifically uncomfortable role of the rabbit staked out in a clearing to attract wolves.
In this case the rabbit, early-1960s-era Detroit automotive engineer and amateur tinkerer Kearns, has invented something we in 2008 take for granted — intermittent, variable-speed windshield wipers — and the wolves from Ford Motor Co. are going to snatch that invention away from him and devour him in the process. Painful as it is for Bob and his family, it's discomfiting for us as well, because we understand from experience how rotten and avaricious, not to mention short-sighted, Ford and the rest of the old Motor City hierarchy are. Or rather, were. We also know that eventually Detroit was going to get its comeuppance from the Japanese, in part because it spent more time swindling guys like Bob than actually thinking about cars and the people who drive them. The temptation is to laugh at the wolves almost before the rabbit gets staked out, even though the joke is really mostly on us. But in Bob's day Ford was almighty, and it's perverse fun to see how it operated.
Filmmaker Marc Abraham, making his directorial debut after producing such provocative entertainments as Air Force One, the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, and Children of Men, joins forces with screenwriter Philip Railsback (who adapted John Seabrook's article from The New Yorker) to stock the film with a fascinating array of faces and attitudes, almost all of them lined up against Kearns. Dermot Mulroney, of the plastic smirk, plays Bob's sell-out business partner, parts manufacturer Gil Previck. Veteran character actor Mitch Pileggi is great as the unctuous Ford exec who pulls the first of many fast ones. Alan Alda's essential untrustworthiness is ideal for the part of Bob's worse-than-useless lawyer. And then there's Tim Kelleher as Charlie Defao, the sinister fixer who coolly visits the Kearns living room to make the offer Bob can't refuse — if he wants to keep walking on his two legs, is the implication. The more Bob squirms, the more we do. He's a beginner at business thuggery, a little too slow and well-meaning. But he's stronger than he looks — he has six devoted kids and his home workshop.
At first, Flash of Genius appears to be another stab at busted myth-making à la Tucker, but actor Kinnear and the creative team steer the proceedings into murkier waters, shades of The Insider or, so help us, Roger & Me. Bob Kearns' experience is a story from the high-water mark of American industry and influence, the imperial mind-set that gave us Vietnam, Iraq/Afghanistan/Iran, and everything in between.
Kinnear's performance qualifies as genuine 2008 Academy bait, but he's not the only one — the woods are full of overheated thesps, helmers, and scribes jousting for Serious Season recognition. Take Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna, a perfectly fine, old-fashioned war movie (well, at least a pretty good one) in which every single actor, down to Wehrmacht dress extras, mugs for the camera as if the Russian Front were waiting for him.
Restless auteur Lee, in the wake of his excellent documentary When the Levees Broke, is clearly doing a Spielberg with James McBride's story (from his novel) of a segregated regiment of African-American WWII GIs, aka Buffalo Soldiers, fighting the Germans along the Gothic Line in Tuscany, circa 1944. And he comes close to pulling it off. The second half among the partisans drags a bit — at 160 minutes, it definitely suffers from Oscar Bloat — but the battle scenes and the New York foregrounding are vivid and exciting, and there's no faulting Lee for his mission to tell the Buffalo Soldiers' overlooked story. The woodsy Italian setting is a further plus. Ever since Do the Right Thing, the Italians have been Lee's second-favorite ethnic group, with bog-Irish New York and Boston cops a distant third.
"Chocolate Giant" Omar Benson Miller's perf as PFC Sam Train is the stuff that Supporting Actor Oscars are made of, but squad buddies Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, and Laz Alonso also get it right, especially Ealy as Bishop the ladies' man. His inamorata, intrigued villager Renata, is played by well-traveled actor Valentina Cervi, the sexiest Italian import since Ornella Muti. And of course there's a kid, Angelo the magic war orphan (Matteo Sciabordi), the miracle boy. Cute as all hell. But there's no avoiding a certain empty feeling as Lee and McBride's tale winds down to its pat denouement. They call them miracles because they're very, very hard to achieve, against impossible odds, essentially lost causes made noble by a protagonist's strength of character as well as by his or her undying faith. That may indeed describe Sam Train, but not necessarily Spike Lee. Not in this movie, anyway.
Michael Cera, best known as the boy down the street who knocked up Ellen Page in Juno, has a callow face. We can project on him any number of attributes, most of them agreeable, but he's essentially a blank slate. Kat Dennings (The 40 Year Old Virgin), on the other hand, is a knockout beauty with eyes of great soulfulness and a teaspoon of melancholy about her. The two actors collide in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, a teenage romantic comedy with music about New Jersey youths playing in bands, exchanging mix CDs, and frolicking in clubs in Manhattan, where most of the action takes place one night.
The bridge-and-tunnel crowd is onto something. Loren Scafaria's screenplay, adapted from the young-adult novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, and directed by teen handler Peter Sollett, may border on warmth and fluffiness, but when Dennings finally latches onto Cera the silky silhouette of promising young love appears unmistakably, right there in a dingy van. Ari Graynor's drunk act is pretty funny, too. Put this on your playlist, if only for an hour or two.
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