Sparks fly with the actors, while the narration has a blackout.
“Tesla” is a biopic that only jumpstarts when we see Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, and Eve Hewson all ignite the screen with grace and dignity, while the narration tends to be weak and uninspired. You’re gazing at the actors easing into their real-life characters, and you’re able to see their motors functioning properly, but you also feel the story is lackluster. If you want a biopic on great innovators, you have to draw the audience in, and not rely on the inventions and actors to take control.
Hawke (reuniting with writer/director Michael Almereyda after “Hamlet” and “Cymbeline) stars as Nikola Tesla, the engineer, who collaborated with Thomas Edison (MacLachlan) on his motor experiments. One of them would lead up to the first electric chair, and another would be his polyphase system.
In this movie, we see him living inside his own head. I mean doesn’t everyone live in their own heads? He’s a man of open-minded innovation, just like Edison, whose project involves alternating current (AC), which would deliver power to residents and businesses. Good thing Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity.
Hewson narrates and co-stars as Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan, who tells the audience to Google Tesla and Edison, and becomes the apple of Tesla’s eye. She also clarifies that certain events and moments never actually happened in real life. They never shoved ice cream cones in each other’s faces, and they never spoke at the World’s Fair. That’s another thing fresh about the movie. It wishes to break the fourth wall by allowing Morgan to educate the audience on the fiction and non-fiction inside Almereyda’s script.
The supporting cast also features Jim Gaffigan as entrepreneur and engineer George Westinghouse, who asks Tesla to work for him, and Rebecca Dayan as French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, another woman Tesla fancies.
About Anne telling the audience to Google the historical figures, “Tesla” sometimes tries to be modern by having the actors acknowledge that they’re in front of green screens, having a MacBook in one of the fourth-wall-breaking segments, and Tesla singing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” via karaoke. This all ends up feeling so flimsy.
Hawke, MacLachlan, and Hewson are all convincing in their own notions as the historical figures, and they all look fascinating with their costumes and make-up. You’re interested in Tesla’s chemistry with Edison and Morgan, because of how Almereyda guides.
But the problem with this movie is they never really get their structures they way they should. They all end up being upstaged by the scientific dialogue, small budget effects, and experiments that blossomed our modern society. And it never really eases you in the viewing process. It just felt weak and boring to me. I wanted more out of it. I wanted a character study and something to jumpstart the script. I’m not talking about it being modern as it tried to attempt to be, but about where Tesla came from, how he came to be, and how he collaborated with Edison. That would have been more inspiring.
Half the time you have electricity, and the other half electrocutes you.
Streaming on Various Services This Friday