Tesla review: An off-kilter approach to the traditional biopic

PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 28: Ethan Hawke attends the 2020 Sundance Film Festival - Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize Reception at High West Distillery on January 28, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 28: Ethan Hawke attends the 2020 Sundance Film Festival - Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize Reception at High West Distillery on January 28, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images) /

Starring Ethan Hawke as the titular inventor, Michael Almereyda’s Tesla is an off-kilter and at times charming but ultimately disappointing biopic.

“Bizarre” isn’t usually a word we would use to describe a biopic detailing the life of an inventor living in the early 1900s, but Tesla is a film that seems to be making a conscious effort to upend and shake-off any preconceived notions of what a biopic is or isn’t. Although we’re not entirely sure that the film succeeds in this goal, it’s an asynchronous and at times entertaining approach to what could otherwise have been an incredibly dull fill.

Following the life of the famed inventor Nikola Tesla, as he navigates working under Thomas Edison, conquering the field of electricity, and finding some semblance of a love life, Tesla on paper should play out as a standard biopic, but there are constant little quirks sprinkled throughout that almost push it into another category altogether.

Bordering on surrealist at times, the film is narrated by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of JP Morgan. Although we’re not sure what her relationship to Tesla was in real life, the film portrays him as a sort of ‘one that got away’ – an almost-lover of Tesla’s who admired him deeply even though they never got together. One of her first scenes sees Morgan (born in 1873) sitting at a laptop explaining to the audience (while looking straight at the camera like Jonathan Frakes in an episode of Fact or Fiction) how many google image search results Tesla has.

It’s charmingly jarring to see a woman in full turn-of-the-century regalia typing at a MacBook and talking about Google, and there are a few more instances like this littered throughout the film. At one point, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) pulls a smartphone out of his pocket while sitting at a bar. The moment is never acknowledged or questioned, nor does it have any significant impact on the film itself – it functions more like a splash of water to the face – making sure the audience is paying full attention.

The most memorable (and likely the most talked-about) example of this comes near the end of the film when Tesla sings Karaoke (with an honest to god microphone and cheesy backdrop) to Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Although initially, we thought the song was just an odd choice for a needle drop, once the microphone rolled into the frame, we knew exactly what was about to go down, even though our jaws still hit the floor.

The film also has a tendency to fabricate scenes that never happened in real life, and then immediately tell the audience, another odd quirk that lends to the film’s self-awareness and active attempts to subvert traditional biopics, which notoriously attempt to fog over the details of real-life for entertainment’s sake.

Instead of just making things up and leaving the audience none the wiser, Almereyda gets very in your face about things – early in the film, Edison and Tesla get into an argument whilst licking ice cream cones that ends in them shoving the confections in each other’s faces. Of course, we know it never happened, but there were so many odd past times of that era (like roller-skating, which Tesla does a few times in the film) that we can’t help but imagine a reality in which that really happened.

To the credit of both Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, and Eve Hewson, what makes these odd fourth wall break moments work more than anything else is the actors’ commitment to the story they’re telling. All three give strong performances that land both comedically and emotionally, and it’s easy to understand and root for all three figures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the aforementioned karaoke scene – which simply would not work without Hawke’s Tesla stuttering and poorly singing his way through the tune, making it feel incredibly real despite all of the contradictions it represents.

However, despite the committed cast and the moments of genius, the vast majority of Tesla is still poorly paced and painfully slow. The film’s best moments actively make the rest of the film worse, because as we’re watching the more traditionally narrative scenes play out, we can’t help but think about how amazing it was that we just saw an ice cream fight or Anne Morgan working on a MacBook.

Although the film is only an hour and forty minutes long, it feels much longer, and the story it’s telling is deeply unengaging. There is no real narrative to the movie as a whole, and it doesn’t so much progress through the story with purpose as it drifts from one scene to the next. It’s difficult to understand what’s going on and why we’re supposed to care about it, so even though there are those brief, incredibly fun moments, they’re overshadowed by the rest of the muddled, drifting mess.

In the end, Tesla is a gutsy film with some great performances and magnetically odd scenes, but we can’t help but wish that the film would’ve fully committed to its own insanity instead of limiting it to small bursts of creativity slotted into an otherwise uninventive biopic.

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Have you seen Tesla? What’s your favorite biopic? Sound off in the comments below.