Directed By Michael Almereyda
Starring – Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson
The Plot – A freewheeling take on visionary inventor Nikola Tesla (Hawke), his interactions with Thomas Edison (MacLachlan) and J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne (Hewson), and his breakthroughs in transmitting electrical power and light.
Rated PG-13 for some thematic material and nude images
– Anything but conventional. For those expecting a by-the-numbers conveyor belt of a biopic that mirrors the same stuctural outline from one to the next, you will be strongly disappointed with Almereyda’s style of expressionist directing. For starters, he allows one of his central characters to narrate the film. This isn’t unheard of, but the way she narrates certainly is, occasionally including moments of Google search results and contemporary social commentary to preserve towards a film that takes place in 1885. This, as well as some other seriously strange decisions leads to a series of fourth wall breaks and moments of unpredictable madness that makes this anything but a boring experience. Credit to Almereyda for taking chances on making his film stand out. Not everything works, or is even entirely factually accurate for its titular character, but I can’t fake disappointment for a storytelling-halting sequence involving Nikola Tesla singing 1984’s “Everybody Wants To Rule the World”, and I’m not kidding in the slightest.
– Transformative aesthetics. The production for the most part is either hit or miss in its strides, outlining a layer of inconsistency that unfortunately dooms the presentation of the movie, but along the way we are treated to some incredibly subtle make-up and prosthetics work that really allows our protagonists to transform before our very eyes. Hawke’s familiarity is still there, but it’s buried under this pale skin tone and picture perfect eyeliner that allows him the attainability and believability of becoming a Serbian-American before our very eyes. Likewise, MacLachlan’s Edison is coated in a greying wig and wrinkle resonant layers that helps evolve an actor who originally looks nothing like his cherished counterpart, and flesh him out with incredibly denial-defying results. Nothing ever feels hokey or gimmicky in the sense of it feeling obviously manufactured, and stands as one of the highest praises overall that this movie got from me.
– Unlimited imagination. There’s much praise and ingenuity to be expressed towards the film’s clever identity that makes it stand out despite it being obviously limited by its 5 million dollar budget. The wardrobe collection is a seamless and timely reminder of the three-piece suit generation, where everyone dressed to impress. Likewise, the free-flowing gowns donned by the film’s female clientele are richly elegant, and full of tasteful vibrancy and style that allows each of them to stand out bodily without ever demeaning their class of character. Other than the wardrobe, the lucidness of Sean Price Williams’ cinematography luminates through a gorgeous glow that not only cements the state of mind inside of a generation still searching for electrical consistency, but also preserves this kind of daydream quality to the picture that visually earns its coherence as an independent darling.
– Leading man. This is one Hawke performance that flies high, despite the majority of his on-screen counterparts ranging somewhere between phoned-in and downright detestable. For Ethan, it’s clear that he finds a lot of enjoyment and untapped energy in bringing this visionary back to life for 102 minutes once more, preserving an air of consistency in the Serbian accent and dry deliveries, that are identical without coming across as unintentionally comical. There’s a thin line of allowance that a role and direction like these rightfully allows him, but Hawke rises to the challenge time and time again, outlining a sincerity for ideals, as well as a tiredness for life’s many defeats, that etches out a fine line of empathy for the character who you can’t help but invest in.
– Strange backdrops. I haven’t seen a distortion of imagery this disjointed and resoundingly cheap in the last couple decades of cinema, but this movie’s attempt to bridge the gap between its cheap production values and making a movie that will do the title character’s legacy a service are met with a series of obvious paintings meant to stand in for the exterior shots in the movie. It happens mostly during the film’s second half, where characters will move to a different geographical location, and instead of shooting this on-location for the integrity of the film, we get a series of hollow, lifeless photographs during these intendedly jaw-dropping landscape wide angles. It wouldn’t be as bad if the outlining layers of the actors in frame didn’t stand out like a sore thumb, but it’s even worse when you consider that practical effects also come into play to replicate storms or surges of electricity. It sets a precedent for artistic balance that constantly reminds us how cheap this movie is, and gives it a wooden stage feeling for all of the wrong reasons.
– Sharp tonal contrasts. In between these scenes of supposed dramatic tension and consequential heft in regards to bankruptcy and urgency to develop the winning product, there are these unnecessarily forced measures of comedy meant to instill a sense of personality to us the audience to make up for the dragging pacing that can’t pick up momentum between any two scenes in the film. This starts with including comedian Jim Gaffigan in a cameo role in the film, but made especially worse with a series of engagements between Tesla and Edison that makes them feel more like old college chums instead of rivals trying to send the other to poverty. The humor itself isn’t even remotely effective enough to make me forget the desperation of the intention, nor is it subtle enough to cohesively fit into the complexions of these conversations for the benefit of the dialogue. It stinks of a first draft screenplay writer who wanted to include as much of his own ideals towards the personality of the film, and does his historical characters a disservice because of such.
– Tesla uncovered? As someone who is a self-described Nikola Tesla aficianado, I was looking forward to finally seeing Hollywood address the visionary genius with a feature film devoted entirely to him. Unfortunately, what I got made me want those things twice as much by the end of the movie. I’m not embellishing when I say I learned nothing about the character, who feels disappointingly one-dimensional towards just the work half of Nikola. One could argue this was because he was obsessed with such, but for my money you need a healthy balance of work and home lives to properly sell the character, and even in a movie as lazily named as “Tesla”, the screenplay never even attempts to attack him from anything other than a surface level. Beyond this, he shares far too much screen time and creative attention with Edison, and I don’t just mean scenes they appear in together. There are whole scenes dedicated to Edison’s character alone that take far too much momentum away from the other side, and only illustrate what we as an audience could capably fill in the blanks with between moments we’re away from Tesla’s biggest rival.
– Lukewarm love story. Tesla has not one, but two ladies who are pining after him throughout the film, and both arcs are disappointingly flat for their own respective reasons. For Anne, the main woman in Tesla’s life, it’s not only my hatred of Hewson’s bitchy performance for the character, but also the way that the chemistry with Hawke simply isn’t there. Call it a lack of scenes conveying intimacy between them, or the fact that their relationship comes and goes with a complete lack of exposition to telegraph what’s coming. Either way, I’ve seen more passion between on-screen siblings (See my review of The Strangers: Prey at Night). The second, and more complex arc is with Sarah Bernhart, a French stage actress whom Tesla had an ongoing affair with. Besides the inability to simultaneously build two arcs to the urgency and dramatic flare for the former one, the romance with Sarah arrives far too late in the film to make much of an impact to what’s converging around it, giving it a tacked-on feeling of importance that the movie doesn’t even care enough about to give an epilogue towards when the film runs everything else down in the closing minute.
– Storytelling shortcuts. Even the movie’s script is at the mercy of a budget so tightly rendered that it forces the movie through a series of tell-and-not-show moments that skip ahead like an impatient child wandering through a museum. This is where the mundane narration from Hewson comes in, because it underwhelmingly fills in the most ambitious moments through Tesla’s career as an innovator with these series of afterthought expositional delves that constantly remind us of the better film we should be watching. Then there’s the visual flares that we miss like a kid who fell asleep before the fireworks on the 4th of July. The electrical current, the first electric chair death, and the entire last act of the movie are sacrificed like ineffectual nothing’s in a movie that is quite literally in love with hearing itself talk, and even if you get a remote comfort of focus while watching this movie early on, you should understand that it’s only moments from being ripped from you entirely.
– Historical inaccuracies. I can’t really go too deep into Tesla as a character, because the movie chooses not to either, but there are a couple of things brought to light in the film that don’t measure up seamlessly to a late 19th century rendering. For one, the kind of ice cream cone that Edison devours during a meeting of the minds wasn’t invented until at least forty years after this timely setting. Likewise, the including of “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” into a film a century earlier than its release raises a series of questions, regardless if you view this sequence as fantasy or reality. There’s also a couple of events between Tesla and his working relationship with George Westinghouse that are a little out of sync in regards to the order they happened, but it’s forgivable considering the film doesn’t focus on Westinghouse too prominently. Each of these aspects do make the film slightly more engaging than what we are left with, but don’t do a huge deal towards the memory of its titular character, and leaves the film a bumbling series of inconsistencies and logic leaps that might as well be a spoof for how its lunacies at times.
My Grade: 4/10 or D-