The 400-Word Review: Tesla
By Sean Collier
August 23, 2020
There is only one thing that matters in “Tesla,” a biopic of the famed, idiosyncratic inventor.
About 10 minutes before the credits roll, Nikolai Tesla walks up to a microphone and sings the Tears for Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
Like he’s at karaoke. It’s a modern microphone and everything.
Until that point, the film is a period piece (albeit with a few deliberately odd touches). Other than fourth-wall breaking narration, though, it is a realistic work; its real-life characters inhabit their real world, mostly at the end of the 19th century.
Then: Tears for Fears.
This must be mentioned first because it is so undeniably, film-shatteringly odd. It is not explained or justified; after those four minutes, the film returns to its story and wraps up. It’s a bold choice, to make an understatement, but it is so bizarre that it drowns the rest of the movie.
Nikolai Tesla has been depicted on film before, notably as a secondary character in last year’s “The Current War.” “Tesla” deals with the same general time period and work: The title character (Ethan Hawke) is a brilliant but somewhat off-kilter inventor armed with a revolutionary understanding of electricity. He briefly labors underneath Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) before the more polished inventor dismisses him.
This leads to a battle for electric primacy, as Edison’s inventions and Hawke’s — with the backing of magnate George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) — compete for funding and use. Much is made of the relationship between Tesla and Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of business tycoon J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), and we careen into Tesla’s dalliance with the actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan).
Hawke and MacLachlan give fine performances, I suppose; Hewson is saddled with the narration, which emanates from a modern perspective. (I think. She uses a laptop and discusses Google results.) It never adds up to a focused throughline, though I suppose it gives some sense of Tesla’s own unfocused mind.
Writer/director Michael Almereyda (“Marjorie Prime”) clearly has great interest in his subject, but no idea what to do with him over the course of 100 minutes. This isn’t an unusual flaw for a biopic — many struggle under the weight of storytelling — but it makes Tesla remarkable only for its more unusual choices.
Like, say, an utterly inexplicable rendition of an ’80s new-wave hit.
Admittedly, the song holds up.
My Rating: 4/10
“Tesla” is available via digital on-demand services.