Tesla is sort of like the curse of the monkey’s paw. You say that you want someone to finally make a totally unconventional biopic, and then one finger on the monkey’s paw curls. A common criticism of biopics is that they often come across as too mechanical and lack creativity, that they’re simply going through an uninspired play-by-play of an objectively fascinating person’s life. Tesla gives us everything we thought we wanted, but in a ham-fisted way that ends up bordering on incoherence.
Perhaps a day will come when Hollywood finally perfects a story about the constant competition between Tesla, Edison, and Westinghouse, three giants of American invention. Alas, Tesla doesn’t quite do the job, and although Ethan Hawke and Kyle MacLachlan both give it their best as Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, respectively, the film can’t avoid feeling like a bit of a slog.
What director Michael Almereyda tries to do with Tesla is admirable. The sort of post-modern, Brechtian way it constantly reminds you that you’re watching a film and forces you to reckon not only with the Tesla you see before you but his entire legacy as a whole. There’s a certain thrill of the unexpected when our narrator, socialite Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) pulls out a laptop and googles the men she’s talking about or, as a scene of a reconstructed apology that never happened winds down, Edison casually checks his cellphone while standing at a hotel bar. It feels right, somehow, to watch these technological titans physically interact with the modern-day fruits of their labor.
But there are also moments where Tesla swings for the fences and not only whiffs at the ball, but accidentally lets the bat fly out of its hands which then knocks out the front teeth of a nearby kindergartener. You guys, this film contains an extended sequence where Hawke as Tesla sings a karaoke version of Everybody Wants to Rule the World. In its worst moments of excess, it’s an incomprehensible mess.
If the entire film had been a chaotic, fourth-wall-breaking carousel of electricity and winking anachronisms, that at least would have been a proper tribute to the notoriously misunderstood Tesla, whose pioneering technological experiments would leave him to die in debt and obscurity without full appreciation of his genius. But Tesla remains frustratingly stuck between its creative ambitions and how it clearly feels beholden to the hyper-traditional biopic structure we’re all familiar with. It accomplishes neither particularly well. Because (and this is really the crux of the problem) no matter which path the film takes, it can never escape the fact that there’s barely any actual story.
Tesla is, unsurprisingly, about Nikola Tesla, but it offers little in the way of narrative structure: there are few dramatic highs and lows, instead just sort of chugging along with scant effort to draw the viewer in. As talented as Ethan Hawke generally is, he feels miscast in the lead role. His charisma is his biggest strength, but in a character like Tesla that element is purposefully muted, which minimizes his impact in the role. He mumbles his way from scene to scene, mostly giving long, intense speeches about the value of his work through clenched teeth to people who probably couldn’t care less. Kyle MacLachlan is legitimately good, but his role is firmly grounded in the traditional biopic realm and thus feels strangely out of place for parts of the film. Surprisingly, despite playing second fiddle to her two male co-stars, Eve Hewson as American financier JP Morgan’s daughter Anne comes off the best. Her role is endlessly intriguing as she straddles the line between the past and the present, both a seer of things to come and an active player within the historical narrative.
There are moments when the risks pay off, brief flashes where we can clearly see what the filmmakers were aiming for. But they don’t come frequently enough, and Tesla suffers because of it. Maybe, like its namesake, Tesla is too far ahead of its time to be fully appreciated now. But it’s probably more likely that it’s just another example of the curse that seems to have been placed on films about these famous inventors; a sign that we should perhaps set our cinematic sights on other visionary inventors, and leave Tesla and Edison to rest in peace.