Before Tesla the electric vehicle existed, its namesake — scientific visionary Nikola Tesla — revolutionized the notion of electrical power.
But Tesla the visionary might not recognize his namesake in Tesla, the movie.
His story is undoubtedly compelling. But the reticent, spellbound-by-science dreamer who inspires this cinematic vehicle often seems a bit out of place in his own movie.
Maybe that’s because writer-director Michael Almereyda’s playfully antic take on Tesla’s life and times seems so determined to pander to our own.
Forget about maintaining any Gilded Age verisimilitude. Throughout Tesla, Almereyda emphasizes the artificiality of it all, from the use of period backdrops (black-and-white photographs and engravings) to sending his characters romping through the aisles of Anachronisms ‘R’ Us.
Our guide to Tesla’s quest, Tesla fan Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) — daughter of financial giant J.P. Morgan — regularly consults her Apple laptop for salient factoids. Tesla’s great rival, inventor — and egomaniac — Thomas Edison (a wily Kyle MacLachlan) checks his smartphone while at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1893.
And Tesla himself (Ethan Hawke, reuniting with Almereyda, who directed him in the Shakespeare adaptations Hamlet and Cymbeline) steps up to the microphone, karaoke-style, to belt out what could serve as his theme song: Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. (Key lyric: “I can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision.”)
We first glimpse the Eastern European immigrant in an elegant room, struggling to maintain his balance. (How appropriate.) He’s on roller skates, alongside Anne, who’s taken quite an interest in the young inventor of an electrical system that, unlike Edison’s, generates no sparks as it generates power.
Alas for Anne, try as she might, there seem to be no sparks between her and Tesla, who remains relentless in his experimental pursuits. Maybe it’s because he’s standing in for his older brother, who died in childhood. “He was the brilliant one,” Nikola muses. “I could never measure up.”
If what follows doesn’t qualify as “measuring up,” then it’s close enough, as Tesla teams with George Westinghouse (a genially gruff Jim Gaffigan) to light up America, then pursues an even bigger target: worldwide wireless energy.
Hawke ably captures Tesla’s living-inside-his-head intensity, but his doggedly solemn, cerebral reserve contrasts — sometimes uncomfortably — with Almereyda’s anything-goes approach.
As a result, Tesla never quite manages to generate the electricity it works so hard to spark.