By Mark Zhuravsky | The Playlist November 4, 2011 at 1:02AM
There is a great idea at the heart of Trent Cooper's "Father of Invention," which makes it all the more disappointing to take in a film that circles the drain precariously before plunging downward with vigor. Kevin Spacey steps into the shoes of lead Robert Axle, a former millionaire inventor, whose genius lies in an ability to combine two ordinary items into one -- a pepper spray camera that blinds your would-be attacker while taking a picture. He plies his wares with a showman's craft in infomercials that piggyback on a legacy of successful combinations. However, after one of his devices causes countless consumers to lose an appendage, Axle is thrown in prison, where he languishes for eight years. In Axle we trusted, so to speak. He is released a shaggy, tired man into a world that knows and despises him -- all creative prospects are closed doors now and holding down a minimal-wage job may prove to be a challenge.
For an actor of Spacey's caliber, "Father of Invention" could have been a great opportunity to deliver a touching look at the inner life of a man who's shriveled on the outside. Axle's lack of anonymity precludes any possibility of second chances -- that alone is a pretty compelling concept. Instead, the screenplay, co-authored by Trent and Jonathan D. Krane, deals in trite cliches and messages spelled out all too literally. Spacey and a largely overqualified cast (Craig Robinson is likely to walk away from this one smelling the cleanest, and he's got some stinkers on his resume) attempt to power through a film that rarely aims to be anything more than a feel-good comedy stuffed with family values. It's not hard to tell who the intended audience for "Father of Invention" is, but the film is so disastrously plain that it's a struggle to plod through.
Fresh out of jail and with no prospects in the world, Axle heads to his ex-wife Lorraine's (Virginia Madsen in an awkwardly over-the-top performance). Lorraine, who in the meantime has spent over $300 million in alimony money and shacked up with Jerry (Robinson), wants nothing to do with Axle. Next stop is Claire (Camilla Belle), his idealistic daughter who despises her father for putting his career ahead of family. You can probably see where this is going -- the problem is how carefully it sticks to the cliche-ridden path of Axle coming to understand that he's been wrong all these years, that the multi-million dollar empire he masterminded was nothing but a sham, that he surrounded himself with work so that real problems wouldn't intrude. But first, Claire must take pity on Axle and allow him to move in temporarily, facing mild admiration from roommate Donna (Anna Anissimova), and raw hatred from Phoebe (Heather Graham). Ms. Graham has always had potential as a comedic actress but in Phoebe's shoes, she comes off as a sociopath and possibly dangerous to society. She is also a lesbian, a lifestyle choice that exists solely to squeeze a few jokes out of it, before tossing it away so that Phoebe can become a potential love interest for Axle.
The main crux of the plot involves Axle looking for the next big thing that will get him back on top. Starting from zero in a society where technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, Axle must return to his roots, and Spacey has always played a man out of his element exceedingly well. In "Father of Invention," the actor seems out of step with the rest of the film, offering a performance that is serviceable and occasionally above-average but frequently coming off as if he were improvising a bit for "Inside The Actors Studio". Maybe it's because Spacey has been so highly acclaimed in the past this undercooked role is out of his grasp -- this is basic stuff and when he nails it, it comes off as insincere. Still, he's the reason to idle your way through the film, with Belle coming in a close second as the conflicted Claire.
There's no spoiling the ending, but suffice to say logic is trampled underfoot for the sake of mawkish sympathy for Axle's self-realization at a key moment. His big character moment is delivered via a monologue that's a sudden and strange change of pace. Axle seems to have been inorganically force fed this message that clashes with his main goal throughout the film -- after all, why can't a man who's spent all this time chasing fame and fortune find time for family as well? Must we be saddled with this archetype for years on end? That "Father of Invention" manages to make Kevin Spacey come off as a dull protagonist is the first of many red flags for the kind of movie you're walking into. Beware. [C-]