‘Tesla’: Flashes of brilliance seen from a director portraying lifetimes of brilliance from inventors
If you don’t think too deeply about it, there’s plenty to celebrate in director Michael Almereyda’s latest venture, “Tesla.” Reuniting him with his 2000 “Hamlet” cast with Ethan Hawke playing Nikola Tesla and Kyle MacLachlan as Thomas Edison, the artifice of “Tesla” is dizzyingly distracting, with stripped down effects doing much to fool us into believing the film offers greater depth than it delivers. It’s a pretty slideshow, and little else. Not so interested in delving further than the surface of a puddle into the psyches of these brilliant men and their burdens, “Tesla” is too caught up in its own tricks to elevate a story.
Focusing on the visionary’s life as Tesla struggles to bring an electrical innovation to life, the film jumps through time periods, interrupting scenes with dream sequences and relying on an abundance of surrealism that feels worn out by the end. The film is both too expansive and too sparse – it spreads itself thin by the end with all it was trying to do, the best portions being when Tesla is battling against someone else, be it MacLachlan’s Edison or Jim Gaffigan’s George Westinghouse. A shame, since the facts of these men’s lives are more than intriguing, something the film capitalizes on by allowing its character Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) to be a fourth-wall breaker, narrating the film with asides on what made the characters tick and what would show up if you googled them.
A passion project for Almereyda (whose most recent project was the Jon Hamm-led “Marjorie Prime,” but has been directing since the late 1980s) and an updated version of the first script he wrote, “Tesla” reveals a definite spark behind the camera. His skills at telling a big story in small spaces is evident, especially in the inventive earlier sequences, electric reimaginings of the teamwork and rivalry between Tesla and Edison – such as a conversation with the two holding ice cream cones. Later there’s a moment where a meeting between the two is cut short with Edison ordering a slice of pie, lighting a cigar and pulling out an anachronistic cellphone. Even more impactful are moments of true historic weight, when we’re reminded that although these men were undoubtedly geniuses, their brains led to deadly and dangerous creations such as the electric chair. There’s a marriage somewhere to be found between that earlier silliness and the latter gravity, but it’s missing a link between those moods to make the film into something cohesive, a dissonance that keeps “Tesla” from sticking its landing.
“Tesla” so desperately wants to break the mold of the standard biopic framework, and with its deliberate, direct-to-camera narration and clever use of modern technology it comes close. But it’s never as weird as either Almereyda thinks or, even more damning, as weird as it easily could have been. The film isn’t without beauty, though, from a color-soaked segment spent in Colorado where Tesla seeks higher altitude for lightning, or a blink of a romance visualized through morse code. But the creativity comes in flashes.
Hawke delivers as well as ever, despite being given the least amount to work with. A karaoke sequence in which he desperately sings the Tears for Fears song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a standout, chilling in his delivery and leaving us perplexed that it’s happening at all. MacLachlan has better luck, playing both subdued and larger than life as Edison, a figure whose shadow looms over practically every scene of the film. Gaffigan is similarly good in his brief scenes as Westinghouse. Hawke’s is the only performance overwhelmed by the flailing spectacle around him, and it’s in his quieter, introspective scenes that he truly sinks into the role.
Almereyda is known for pushing boundaries on film structure, with a willingness to play with narrative and expectations that can be thrilling when his lightning strikes. “Tesla” is simply too messy. There’s plenty to say about human nature and about capitalism’s claws and the correlation between past and present, but there’s too much getting in the way of the story. It’s pretty, but frustratingly hollow.