Review: ‘Tesla,’ with Ethan Hawke, is low on electricity

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Before it was possible to buy “a Tesla” and probably since, Nikola Tesla has been chronically underappreciated. Wider recognition has been steadily climbing for the Croatian-born visionary whose electric innovations did much to make the 21st century world of wireless power transmission. But he’s still seen fleetingly in film.

He pops up briefly in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” (as played by David Bowie!) and was portrayed by Nicholas Hoult in 2019’s “The Current War,” a muddled movie about Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. In the popular imagination, Edison still has the patent on American inventor genius.

So writer-director Michael Almereyda’s “Tesla,” with Ethan Hawke as the Serb immigrant innovator, had an opening. But where many would have aimed for a traditional biopic given the less familiar outlines of Tesla’s life, Almereyda has instead — perhaps in tribute to such a free-thinking futurist as Tesla — opted for something more post-modern, fractured and off-kilter.

It doesn’t come off. “Tesla,” too enamored with its own experimentation, yields no results, sagging from scene to scene with little to enliven itself other than playful but eventually tiresome biopic rule-breaking.

Almereyda is an inventive filmmaker. He has made sometimes spellbinding, sometimes pretentious films that rigorously eschew conventional approaches. With Hawke, he made a modern-day “Hamlet” in 2000. His 2015 film “Experimenter,” about the controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram, Almereyda employed fourth-wall-breaking tricks to reflect Milgram’s own experiments. He makes thorny, stylized movies piled high with artifice.

“Tesla,” too, is a mind game. It’s narrated by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of industrialist J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), who sometimes speaks directly into the camera and sometimes sits down to Google something about Tesla. Such anachronistic diversions are meant to be humorous but also to comment on the far-reaching ramifications of Tesla’s discoveries. Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) has an iPhone.

Tesla might have been far more famous and wealthy in his day had he been a smarter businessman, a more natural social operator, less taken advantage of as an immigrant. Large amounts of the film feature a perpetually befuddled Tesla in dimly lit parlor rooms, pubs and banquet halls, struggling to avoid the manipulations of those around him. Especially Edison. MacLachlan plays him less as a scientist than a mannered Victorian gentleman. He’s like a great and cruel stage actor capable of a performance that Tesla couldn’t — and wouldn’t — muster.

“Tesla” is, altogether, a kind of play acting. Deep knowledge of Tesla (or anyone) is a biopic charade to parody, not pursue. Jim Gaffigan drops in to play a lemonade-drinking Westinghouse. There’s even a performance of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Almereyda has cited “Drunk History” as an inspiration.

That might make “Tesla” sound more fun than it is. While its ideas are often intriguing, the movie feels like high-concept scaffolding that only thinly conceals it hollowness. It’s a Tesla without electricity.

The only spark is Hewson. She’s again in early 20th century New York, just as she was in her breakthrough, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick.” The intervening years haven’t seemed to lead to similarly electric parts, but she remains a singularly smoldering presence.