Ethan Hawke’s unconventional ‘Tesla’ could use some more spark
Tesla is a bit of a mess, but at least it’s not another plodding biopic. That honor, in electrical-inventor history, belongs to The Current War, which even the reptilian charms of Benedict Cumberbatch couldn’t save.
In his second collaboration with Ethan Hawke, director Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime, Hamlet) conjures a deeply odd portrait of a deeply odd man. Nikola Tesla (Hawke) was a Serbian-American inventor who, among many prescient innovations, allegedly came up with the idea for the internet nearly a century before conservatives started making up stories about Al Gore claiming that honor.
I didn’t know much about Tesla beyond David Bowie’s rendition of him in 2006’s The Prestige and Elon Musk’s car company, and I’m not sure I know much more about him now. I can say that alternating current was his thing, and that he and Thomas Edison (Kyle McLachlan) butted heads over whose electrical system was better. In Almereyda’s unconventional telling, the two end up having an ice cream cone fight about it. “This never happened,” our narrator (Eve Hewson) immediately chimes in. Cool!
TESLA ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Michael Almereyda
Written by: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Jim Gaffigan
Running time: 102 mins
Almereyda plays fast and loose with the fourth-wall breaks, jumping through the ages to have the corseted Hewson remark on things like how many hits you’ll get when you Google Tesla’s name. He also features the inventor singing Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. It’s enjoyably daffy and experimental, like a really well-funded high-school play, right down to the painted backdrops that set various scenes throughout.
Hawke plays Tesla as a sort of proto-Goth, a shy and cerebral type who never figured out how to market himself well enough to realize his dreams. Of course he’s a swoony object of curiosity for the ladies, including Hewson’s Anne Morgan, daughter of world’s richest man J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), and the actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). But Tesla is too in his head for romance, so this reduces Anne to being the patron and friend who tries to nudge him toward success.
This was the late 19th Century, a time when animal experimentation was really taking off. Tesla meets George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan, always a welcome presence), and the electrical entrepreneur tells him about an experiment of Edison’s involving electrocuting dogs. A subsequent scene begins in close focus on a paw having a shackle placed on it, and I’m going to admit to you I just skipped right ahead to the next scene. It’s possible the dog-electrocution sequence holds all the clues to really understanding Tesla, but I doubt it, and I just really didn’t want to see it. This may be a dereliction of critical duty, but my mopey-eyed hound dog is going to back me up on it.
I found much of Tesla a little sluggish, aside from its asides. There are a couple of splashy, dynamic sequences, including the inventor’s attempt to harness a lightning storm and Bernhardt making a spectacular entrance, but in too many moments Tesla’s introversion just makes for bad cinema. He sags in the corner of the frame, too genius for this world yet not possessed of enough of a charismatic spark (sorry) to light up a room.