Movie review: ‘Tesla’ is eclectic but could use a bit more electricity
Here are a couple of things you might know about the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla: There’s a pricey electric car named after him. He invented the Tesla Coil - a transformer that produces high voltages at low currents. Here are a couple you probably don’t know: He held close to 200 patents. He was on the cover of Time Magazine on July 20, 1931. Here are a couple of questions to ponder: Did he invent fluorescent lightbulbs? Did he - not Marconi - invent radio?
A scene, early on in the atmospheric and arty and often perplexing “Tesla,” shows an unnamed woman sitting, anachronistically, at a laptop computer, mentioning a few historical facts about Tesla, then noting how little is really known about him. Why is this anachronistic? Because the scene is supposedly taking place sometime around 1900 ... and she’s at a laptop ... and she’s suggesting that viewers look him up on Google.
Freely jumping around in time and place, the film opens in 1884 with Tesla (1856-1943), newly hired as an engineer at Edison Machine Works, sitting with a small group of other engineers, listening to Thomas Edison chatter away. An offscreen narrator - that woman who will later be seen at the laptop - explains what’s going on.
A bit of drama occurs when animosity arises between Edison and Tesla over some money, then our narrator returns, now with some biographical info on Edison. It’s soon clear that this is going to be a quiet, brooding, talkative film that, though bearing the title “Tesla,” won’t be revealing a lot about him. You likely will have to look him up on Google.
But there are also praises to be sung of it ... and, watch out, there’s some singing, too!
Tesla (Ethan Hawke, going for glumness), is presented as a workaholic dullard, a man for whom nothing is more important than bringing his scientific ideas to life and then to fruition. Edison (Kyle MacLachlan, livening things up with ardent conversation), approaching midlife, seems to be in the inventing game for the money, and comes across as kind of a jerk. That narrator, who keeps switching between on-camera and off-camera, is Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson, playing it perky but with flat vocal delivery), the daughter of industrialist J.P. Morgan. Upon meeting Tesla, she begins a flirtation, eventually telling him, “You need me.”
Tesla, teeming with ideas, especially one for a “perfect induction motor,” leaves Edison’s employ, starts his own company, fails, digs ditches for a living till he can find some backers, then jumps headlong into the inventing game.
Much of this is told in spurts of narration by Anne. But other people keep popping up throughout the film, often without proper introduction, so it’s sometimes difficult to figure out who they are or what they’re doing with Tesla.
When the script gets around to it, we meet George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), who is either a partner with or a rival of Edison. There’s also Anital Szigeti (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Tesla’s assistant, whose positive attitude is a brief respite from the film’s sulkiness. And J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) has a few fun minutes of screen-time to help you hate the wealthy.
While the performances are uniformly good, too many other components weigh the film down. The narration - done in breaking-the-fourth-wall manner - is jarring, and the gimmick is overused. There’s no sense to having Edison (anachronistically) pull out and begin to use a cell phone, then just cut to another scene. A sequence in Colorado, where Tesla travels to conduct experiments in electricity, comes complete with blatant use of rear screen projections, or maybe they’re scrims. Whatever they are, they’re very distracting.
By the film’s conclusion, you’ll have seen some great two-hander scenes, and learned myriad bits and pieces about Nikola Tesla. But you won’t begin to understand him or what drove him. Oh, almost forgot, there is indeed some singing. Near the end, a leather-gloved Ethan Hawke steps up to a microphone to whisper-croon a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” To that, I ask, “Huh?”
“Tesla” opens in select theaters and drive-ins, and will be available on most VOD and cable platforms on Aug. 21.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and directed by Michael Almerevda
With Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson