Tesla (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Nikola Tesla possessed one of the greatest minds in human history, but you wouldn’t know it from sitting through Michael Almereyda’s abhorrent miscalculation, a film so desperate to deliver the opposite of what’s to be expected from a biopic that it ends up losing focus on detailing what makes the inventor worthy of remembering and honoring. It employs numerous strategies from anachronisms and imaginings to breaking the fourth wall and bursting into song. Perhaps it is fun or amusing on paper, but it does not translate well on film. What results is an experimental and soporific bore, devoid of important connective issues that pave the way for engaging drama.

Tesla is played by Ethan Hawke, and his talent is utterly wasted. It is painful to watch Hawke, a consummate performer, attempting to inject humanity into a screenplay that is more interested in delivering winks and gimmicks than staying true to the facts and presenting information that viewers may not be aware of or knowledgeable about. I felt a pompousness to the material that becomes unbearable over time. And so during the latter of half of the picture, when Tesla is at his most desperate financially, tears well up in his eyes but we couldn’t care less. “Just end this embarrassment already,” I caught myself thinking.

The work focuses on two of Tesla’s numerous major contributions to science: his role in bringing alternating current to the masses and developing the idea of transmitting electrical energy without wires. While the decision to narrow the focus is perfectly acceptable, the work still proves lazy. In regard to the former, the effort only goes as far as defining direct current (DC) versus alternating current (AC). It does not detail, in simple and clear fashion, as to why, for instance, the latter is more efficient and safer in general. We are shown apparatuses but never demonstrated how they function. It assumes viewers do not possess the curiosity or mental capacity to handle the science. I felt angry and disgusted. Instead, it goes out of its way to introduce “humor” like Tesla and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) shoving ice cream into each other’s face. Why?

And then there is the movie’s disastrous handling of women in Tesla’s life. There is Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of John Pierpont Morgan (“J. P. Morgan”), whom Tesla supposedly falls for. I say “supposedly” because the chemistry likens that of a vegan staring at raw meat crawling with maggots. There is no energy, no intrigue, not even a whiff of playfulness to their interactions. No electricity. (See how groan-inducing it is when humor is pushed too hard?) Tesla is almost always showcased as socially inept, at a loss for words when women are around. It does not help that Tesla and Morgan’s interactions are limited to short-lived run-ins; we get no appreciation of how their relationship evolves over time. And why is it necessary to introduce the traveling stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan)? How is she relevant to the story?

I have a theory about what happened to the screenplay. One day, the entire thing was ran through a paper shredder because the writer was convinced the material was absolute bollocks. The fragments were then tossed into the recycling bin outside. Sure enough there was a raging storm overnight and the wind knocked over the bin causing the paper fragments to be scattered about. The next morning, the writer had a change of heart. After all, he was under contract and he was obligated to deliver. And so he stepped outside to collect the shredded document but major sections are forever lost. (No electronic copy was made.) In order to compensate for the missing sections, he decided to write in nonsensical happenings like a character bursting into song, the narrator addressing the audience, and the like. It would be an unconventional biopic. Non-linear. Post-modern. Surely people would buy into that.

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