Review: Ethan Hawke throws switch in ‘Tesla,’ but bulb blows for audience

This image released by IFC Films shows Ethan Hawke in a scene from “Tesla.” (Cara Howe/IFC Films via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Tesla'

When you hear the word “Tesla,” you probably think of a vehicle by Elon Musk.

However, a new indie biopic aims to remind us of the real innovator behind the name as “Tesla” streams for $6.99 on YouTube and Amazon Prime.

It follows Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), who moves to New York City in 1884. He finds a rival in light bulb inventor Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), who believes alternating current (AC) is dangerous, while Tesla believes it’s “beautiful and safe.” Tesla also insists Edison owes him a sum of $50,000.

You can always trust Ethan Hawke to turn in ballsy work, from Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” to Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed.” As Tesla, we meet him rolling around on roller skates, floating through the hallways with his back toward the camera. When we finally see his face, Hawke speaks in a gruff voice with whispered tones.

As for his rival, MacLachlan plays Edison as an irreverent legend in his own time, talking down to Tesla, flippantly suggesting ways to fry death-row inmates in the electric chair and wooing his wife by tapping his finger like Morse code on her palm.

Beyond the two rivals, the film in many ways belongs to Eve Hewson as Tesla’s love interest Anne Morgan, the wealthy daughter of banker J.P. Morgan. Her facial reactions often inform the audience how to feel, while her voice serves as the film’s narrator.

In a somewhat lazy imitation of the “Citizen Kane” newsreel, Hewson narrates overwrought monologues as sepia graphics paint a montage of Tesla’s life. Oddly, Hewson speaks in present day, describing search results on a MacBook computer: “If you Google ‘Edison’ you will get over 64 million results — twice as many as ‘Tesla.’”

We learn of Tesla’s birth in Croatia in 1856, his engineering studies in Prague, his vision of a motor while living in Budapest, his bankrupting of Tesla Lighting Company, his ditch digging for Western Union and his partnership with George Westinghouse, who buys Tesla’s patents for over $1 million en route to the 1893 World’s Fair.

These relentless montages bog down the story in exposition as the film languishes in limbo between narrative and documentary. The narrator constantly breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience, as does Hawke, who walks in front of his own black-and-white photo, shattering the form like a true innovator would.

Writer/director Michael Almereyda (“Marjorie Prime”) is undoubtedly a creative force. He employs half-lit faces for symbolic dualities, freeze frames that rewind scenes and replay them to different effect, even characters complaining when the soundtrack drops out (“Don’t stop playing”) to contrast diegetic vs. non-diegetic sound.

Still, for all these “light bulb moments” of filmmaking, there’s not enough tying them together for seamless execution. We wonder what a more straightforward approach might have produced like Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), David Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2010) or Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game” (2015).

Many of the most compelling scenes are followed by the reveal: “This scene never happened,” lowering the stakes when the drama of real events might have sufficed.

By the time Tesla sings Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in a bizarre moment of anachronism, audiences will feel like Edison when Tesla smashes an ice cream cone in his face. It’s a bold experience, a jolt to the system and certainly never boring, but it’s not that satisfying when you’re really just hungry for ice cream.

And so, our reaction echoes the following dialogue exchange:

“Anne is very upset. She says you live in your head.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“Too much in your head. I think she feels left out.”

So do we.

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