Movie Review: Tesla (2020)

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One of the most difficult things to convey onscreen is human thought, particularly what happens when an epiphany washes over us. We do, of course, have an accepted shorthand for these moments in animation. Most commonly depicted by the image of a lightbulb going off above a character's head, we watch as their eyes widen, perhaps a finger is raised, and then they run to go put their ideas into motion. Taken together, these actions are easily understood; we know we've witnessed intellectual serendipity. 

And while we've all seen actors attempt to externalize the internal onscreen – usually with the camera closing in on their faces before pulling back to see them start working on a new, grand opus – there are only a precious few actors who we routinely believe we are seeing think in character. It's a short list, to be sure, but one man who is definitely on it is Ethan Hawke.

One of those actors whom you believe that – for both good and bad, depending upon the project – has the soul of a philosopher, a musician, and an inventor, we've seen Hawke triumph when he collaborates with a filmmaker who knows how to "play" him like Chet Baker played his trumpet . . . or Hawke played Baker playing his trumpet in Robert Budreau's "Born to Be Blue."

Still, while he's worked so well with iconoclastic writer-director Michael Almereyda in the past – most notably on his controversial "Hamlet" adaptation in 2000 – their latest effort "Tesla" feels more like a jam session played on rusty instruments by an out-of-practice jazz band than it does the smooth, rich, wrap you in velvet sound of musicians who are perfectly in sync. 

It's a damn shame, too, because if anybody knows how to bring a lightbulb moment to life, it's Hawke, so when it was announced that he was going to be playing a man who literally played with electricity, expectations for "Tesla" were set unbelievably high.

The first time we see Nikola Tesla (Hawke) in Almereyda's unconventional biopic, he is wobbling around on roller skates, which is an apt metaphor for the film overall. Awkwardly trying to keep his balance in formal wear, Tesla skates along with his friend, the daughter of J.P. Morgan, Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), who wishes she could be so much more to the shy inventor. So undone by the sight of pearls on a woman's neck because it reminds him of his mother back in Serbia, (who, for all intents and purposes is the only woman he ever loved), their relationship is doomed long before he ever put on those skates.

Wedded to his pursuits and only very casually intrigued by women from a platonic perspective, Tesla puts everything he has into his work with alternating currents – a practice which alienates his first big American employer, Thomas Edison (a sublime Kyle MacLachlan) – before he eventually finds a patron and financial champion in George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan).

Coming off the heels of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's underrated 2017 film "The Current War," which chronicled the same three figures (with Nicholas Hoult, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Michael Shannon playing Tesla, Edison, and Westinghouse respectively) and was finally released to little fanfare last year, I was somewhat familiar with "Tesla"'s turn-of-the-century electrical terrain.

And while the first act of the film is very engaging – especially with a surprisingly vulnerable turn by MacLachlan and moving supporting work by Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Tesla's best friend from overseas, the hard-working but creatively stymied Anital Szigeti – it's a bad sign when your film happens to be called "Tesla" and the least compelling character in the film is also named Tesla.

As subdued as he is single-minded in his quest, Nikola Tesla is on paper, at least, a perfect character for Ethan Hawke. A highly verbal actor, Hawke sometimes gives his most affecting performances when he's limited by how much he can say since it's in such a stark contrast to his most famous onscreen alter-ego as Jesse Wallace in Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy. 

Yet whereas Paul Schrader knew exactly how to balance the pathos and conflict just below his reverend's collar in "First Reformed," he flounders in this film so much that he nearly blends in with the scenery. And in "Tesla" this is a feat in and of itself considering that, in paying homage to Derek Jarman's minimalist production design in "Edward II" (and other films) and Denmark's Dogme 95 filmmakers, "Tesla" frequently opts for basic projected backdrops you might find surfing the web instead of artfully decorated spaces.

An experimental biopic that (shockingly) isn't weird enough to break any new ground, save for a truly puzzling performance by Hawke as Tesla of the Tears for Fears song "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" toward the end of the movie – which made me wonder why we hadn't seen that level of innovation before – Almereyda's film is an overall yawn.

Struggling to hold our attention as it drones on and away from Edison, who is the most fascinating figure in the film, I found myself fighting to stay awake even though I watched it the very first thing in the morning. A long-gestating passion project from the director, who penned his earliest version of the script in the early 1980s, regrettably the 2020 filmed version of "Tesla" is sorely lacking the same level of youthful enthusiasm that Almereyda had for it nearly forty years ago.

The first onscreen reunion of MacLachlan and Hawke since they played Claudius and Hamlet in Almereyda's 2000 film, the two crackle with electricity in the few scenes they share here, whether they're sparring verbally or with ice cream cones (don't ask). And while it's always hard to showcase creative thought, when it comes right down to it, no matter how hard Almereyda tries to flick the switch for Hawke in "Tesla," this is one bulb that never lights up.

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