Sunday, February 22, 2009

GREG KINNEAR, an appreciation, and FLASH OF GENIUS, a review

Who'd have thought back in 1991, that the pretty boy with the sly mouth hosting a small cable show -- TALK SOUP -- that everyone seemed to be watching and laughing with would eventually have the kind of movie career and reputation that many actors would give their left noogie to possess? I certainly didn't. As much as I enjoyed the program -- and its unusual star GREG KINNEAR, who made such clever, pointed fun of the current talk shows and their

far-too-fake hosts and guests -- to me, Kinnear seemed perfectly cast as the bright, handsome fellow who could get away with the nastiest jibes because of his seemingly non-judgmental appearance and a delivery that exquisitely impaled his prey by using against them the tools of their very own, and very sleazy, trade. Who else could possibly manage this so well?

Kinnear, right, with Rita Wilson, in Auto Focus.

No one, as it turned out. The Talk Soup hosts who followed (John Henson, Hal Sparks and Aisha Tyler) were variously cute and clever while barely holding a candle to Kinnear. Did this fellow invent "snark," or does it only seem so in retrospect because he delivered it with more class and finesse than anyone since (except perhaps Jon Stewart, who may have received his early training from watching our Greg and his non-comittal pause coupled to a sudden tiny change in vocal inflection or eyebrow raise that says so very much).

With that wide-open, midwestern face (Kinnear hails from Indiana), he's as American as apple pie (as the love object in Nurse Betty, above) and just as able to turn tart (last year's Ghost Town) or rancid (playing TV star Bob Crane in Auto Focus: photo, top left). His good looks and affability easily disguised his versatility. Even as his audience remained entranced by his soupy talk, Kinnear was simultaneously making a few television appearances in dramatic roles, playing a Talk Show host in Mike Binder's and Damon Wayan's foolish Blankman, then finally breaking into extreme mainstream by snagging the role originally played by William Holden in the late Sydney Pollack's remake of Sabrina. That movie pretty much tanked but Kinnear (seen in the photo from Sabrina, below) proved he could hold the screen equally as well as box-office star Harrison Ford or find-of-the-moment Julia Ormond in the title role. He hasn't stopped holding it since.

With his innate gift for comedy and a face that can look -- from moment to moment -- alert, foolish, sad, smart or surprisingly crass/sleazy (considering how handsome the guy is), Kinnear has had some juicy roles all right, but none, save his Academy-Award-nominated stint in As Good as It Gets, have as nearly catapulted him to the kind of fame in which an actor this good could be basking. But perhaps this guy doesn't want to bask.

If the 39 roles he's now taken indicate anything about his choices (though its generally our superstars who seem most able to truly "choose" their roles), he's as likely to appear in ensemble pieces such as like The Gift (photo top right), Loser, the HBO Emmy-nomated Dinner with Friends (in which he appears above, center right, with Toni Collette, Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell) or Little Miss Sunshine as in a lead role in films such as Auto Focus or the just-out-on-DVD Flash of Genius. Considering how many small independent films he's agreed to grace, I suspect he has deliberately chosen many of these roles. His star power and name associated with the project would certainly have helped raise some of the financing.

Flash of Genius offers a true star turn that, as you'd expect from Kinnear, is non-showy even as it gives the actor (shown left with Lauren Graham, who plays his wife) his best opportunity in a long while to command the screen. He's in just about every scene and -- again, as usual -- never makes a wrong move or offers a false emotion. His character is a stubborn one who stays his course, and on that course, loses much of what he loves. This film is about a man -- Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper (if you drive a car, you'll understand how important this little contribution was to easier driving and better road safety) -- who, when ripped off of his creation by the Ford Moror Company, demands a kind of justice not measured in money. (What? Why, everything can be measure in money, of course, so better start counting it out.) Kearn's refusal to accept what amounted to a bribe -- first in the thousands, eventually in the millions -- takes the film into troubling waters and probably accounts, as much as anything else, for critics' and audiences' rejection of it. Most people today, as then (certainly Kearns' own friends and family) would have taken the money and run, but this obsessive inventor did not. And so a long, but quite interesting, story unfolds.

There is certainly little wrong with Flash of Genius as movie biographies go (except perhaps its title, which, though we learn from where it comes, still strikes us as both clichéd and pretentious). The screenplay (Philip Railsback) and direction (Marc Abraham) are smartly competent, as are all the performances. And because the film is set back in the 1960s and takes us through the early 90s, there is the nostalgia factor on view, along with the usual amount of elision and compression necessary for this genre. Yet the moviemakers stay their course, showing us the difficulties inherent not only in the Ford people but in Kearns himself, so that, by the time we arrive at the finish, we are as exhausted and elated as the protagonists. Kinnear's contribution to the success of the film cannot be oversold. He makes use of his entire acting arsenal, and in the provess creates a full-bodied character whom we care for, grow angry at, and finally understand the driving force behind.

The auto show scene from Flash of Genius

The movie offers something more, too: As our automotive companies continue to slide into bankruptcy, due as much to their own practices over the past fifty years as to our current economy, Flash of Genius cannot help ring bells and rub sores about how much trust should be placed with these industry behemoths (according to Wikipedia, Kearns sued all three, plus Mercedes Benz, with varying results, which the movie -- even with its informative title cards prior to the end credit roll -- manages to skirt).

If I were to pick a favorite Kinnear movie it would have to be Richard Shepard's wonderful 2005 film The Matador, in which the actor stars with Pierce Brosnan (with whom he's shown above) and Hope Davis. If you have not seen it, do. Not only does it give Greg his best role, it offers something close to that for Davis and definitely for Brosnan, whose mid-to-late-life career it helped re-start. As good as he is in other films, Kinnear here is moment-to-moment amazing, such a joy to watch that it's hard to take your eyes off him and onto the two, as fine as they are. The actor takes his character through change after change, pulling you along with him. The story, too -- the entire film, in fact -- will take you places you have not been and leave you confused, delighted and saddened. How much more can you ask of a film these days?

Some other under-sung gems includes the Farrelly Brothers' Stuck on You, in which the actor (above right, with Matt Damon) plays a Siamese twin (here's a chance to see Kinnear's goofy side); the mostly unknown Unknown, a dark, jolting puzzle movie that will take you its entire length to figure out, in which Kinnear (below) is again part of a good ensemble that includes Jim Caviezel, Bridget Moynahan, Jeremy Sisto, Barry Pepper and many more; and a cute, little-seen love story/comedy with Ashley Judd and Hugh Jackman titled Someone Like You. Sure, some of Kinnear's movies are second-rate or worse (one of the shabbiest is A Smile Like Yours) but even in these, you can't fault the actor's work.

So Mr. Kinnear will probably go on doing a yeoman's job, film to film, yet may never hit that magic combo of role-in-hit that wins awards and puts one permanently on the map. That's no reason that smart, caring audiences need do without this terrific actor, who keeps on keeping on with spirit and talent aplenty.

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