Review: Ethan Hawke's 'Tesla' never sparks
Courtesy of IFC Films
We saw it earlier this year with “Radioactive” and now we’re witnessing it again in “Tesla;” an iconic and incredible contributor to modern science and technology is given a limitless biopic that doesn’t honor its subject matter so much it doesn’t know what to do with them. That’s partially due to the attention to detail a period piece requires, because in the wrong hands, they can be painful to endure. In the case of “Tesla,” which throws a miscast Ethan Hawke into the role of inventor Nikola Tesla, writer-director Micheal Almereyda never makes the case as to why an unorthodox biopic about him, instead of Thomas Edison, is worth my time.
From the beginning some of the choices already feel off beat: Hawke decides to play the inventor with a silent, barely audible, whisper that mandates the volume on your TV be at max levels, and the film tries (and fails) to upend normal, routine, biopic standards by incorporating countless “fourth wall” breaks. In one scene, our narrator, Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) - daughter of J.P. - pulls out a Macbook and asks the audience to “Google” Tesla. In another scene, Edison pulls out a cellphone to pass the time.
Sure, it’s an interesting ruse that attempts to “modernize” the film and put into perspective the achievements of these men (plus Tesla was a man of the future) but it doesn’t help if Hawke never feels like the right man for the job. Especially when you remember David Bowie’s performance in “The Prestige” was more convincing in a supporting role than what Hawke does with an entire film.
Not to mention, “Tesla” never locks down a clear focus, maneuvering through countless obstacles and timeframes, notably that of his encounters with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), and J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). Incidentally, the film tries to imagine on several occasions many “what if” scenarios, like a friendly ice cream fight with Edison, or a later scene where the two men break bread and let bygones be bygones. And instead of shuttling the performers to the actual locations where their taking place, Almereyda plops the actors in front of a backdrop, painted to look like, for example, Niagara Falls where Tesla proved the validity of water power.
This idea of faking out the audience is certainly welcome, but those minor gambits never help keep the movie’s creative juices flowing. It’s basically attempting to do with the current war what “The Big Short” did with the 2008 financial crisis. The key difference being one maintained its witty sense of humor throughout, whereas the other fizzles within the first twenty minutes.
Which is odd considering Tesla is far more popular and noteworthy today than when he bit the dust in 1943. Though his ideals at the time - he claimed it was possible to utilize clean electromagnetic energy from the earth - were seen as outlandish, many of his creations have been incorporated into our daily lives. So it’s no surprise that Hawke - like many other seasoned pros - are attracted to the scrappy innovator who was bullied at nearly every turn for his proposals.
So it’s a bummer that “Tesla” never rises to the inventors own high standards, because there’s plenty of creative components on display to suggest a more harrowing biopic exists somewhere in the stratosphere, but that maybe Hawke and Almereyda weren’t the correct duo to tell his story.
TESLA lands on VOD Friday August 21st.