By now, we need not be strangers to biopics involving modern day wizards of industrial prowess. Last year’s The Current War proved the needless delay was worth it for an enthralling tale with exuberant showmanship. The most novel cinephiles (I, myself included) were delighted despite its infrequent flaws. That is likely the tough thing about Michael Almereyda’s Tesla, that its audience will be a bit too narrow for such an inventive work blurring the line between traditional film and an expansive live performance piece. Again, with its respectable flaws, of which there are a few.
Charting through the European-born electrician’s roots as a youthful immigrant learning under Thomas Edison’s (Kyle MacLachlan) doting wings, Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) makes pure magic while pushing the naysayers away. His concept is simple: harness the power of Direct Current, at a time when Alternating Current is the popular selection within small regions. Edison balks, and even on his own he struggles to make it. Thank heaven for the welcome, uber-wealthy presence of the likeminded George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) with whom they strike a partnership.
Once we move beyond the professional introductions, the real character study can begin. Even there, it is far from traditional. Nowhere near the typical biopic. From the moment Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) breaks out her iMac, projector, and PowerPoints, the level of fourth-wall destruction is nothing short of relentless. She plays the role of a nearly “unreliable narrator”, perhaps skewing a bit too far from the facts. If one were to think of it more as live theater than as cinematic storytelling, that would make sense.
All the stops are being pulled between writer-director Almereyda (Marjorie Prime), the controlled visual expertise of Sean Price Williams (Her Smell), and Mr. Hawke once more flexing his tightened character actor muscles. No mistake in saying it is his most raucous performance in recent memory, perhaps since his work in the grippingly intense First Reformed.
He champions a rather solid ensemble, everyone giving an equal share. And yet when the camera focuses completely on him, he owns it. One energetic moment where he somehow pulls modern music into his own era of time, and make it thematically appropriate, jaw-dropping cliched, and yet no less purposeful. Ditto for an ice-cream fight that must be seen to be believed. Other times, we see the shell of a man Tesla slowly devolves into. An OCD perfectionist driven mad by his own personal goals, and by a romantic obsession with socialite actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) while Anne waits in the shadows.
When we step away from the titular character, we get a few decent supporting performances. Hewson delights as Miss Anne, Donnie Keshawarz a winner as her wealthy father. MacLachlan makes for a rather competitive Edison in his own small manner, though obviously not to the same level of effortless showmanship as what Mr. Cumberbatch could accomplish. They help to bolster Hawke, while Almereyda once more toys delicately with historical events. He is no stranger to effortlessly portraying world events through an eccentric lens. Heck, his best-known work could best be described as the awkward collision between Hamlet and Clerks. Anyone seeking a more realistic context to couple the outlandish portrayals might be disappointed.
As much of a grab-bag as Tesla appears to be by its final 20 minutes, showmanship looms large in his mind. Albeit to the point where historical accuracy falls by the wayside in favor of mere gimmickry. Almereyda has a clear enough path to take this biopic to the finish line. And while the more whimsically meta moments left a genuine smile on my face, it cannot match a more concise retelling of facts and figures. None of us can say Tesla accomplishes that at all. It’s a rather awkward outlier in the middle of an abnormal movie year. But still, a worthy watch to see Hawke bury himself in a role, as professional as they come. Make it a double feature with Current War, if possible. (C-; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Tesla is currently in select theaters where open and VOD; rated PG-13 for some thematic material and nude images; 108 minutes.