Inventor Nikola Tesla is more popular today than when he died penniless in a New York hotel in 1943. Back then, he was the futurist who swore he could summon unlimited, clean, wireless electromagnetic energy from the earth — a neat idea, but surely coal and oil were fine. In the 21st century, as temperatures rise, Tesla has grown in stature as humanity’s fumbled savior, the martyr of missed opportunities who was bullied by every businessman he met, most of whom still have their names welded to global conglomerates. No wonder hip actors like David Bowie and, now, Ethan Hawke have signed on to play the genius.
Cool kid supreme Hawke brings cerebral ennui to Michael Almereyda’s theatrical biopic “Tesla,” which waltzes through the Serbian immigrant’s partnerships with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), and J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), and his rumored flirtations with Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson) and the actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). Anne narrates the film, mostly interrupting to say which scenes are Almereyda’s own invention, including an ice cream fight with Edison, and a later scene where the two men share pie. Almereyda embraces fakery. Instead of dragging Hawke to Niagara Falls, where Tesla proved the potential of water power, he plops the actor in front of a backdrop wearing a wet trenchcoat. After all, the film seems to say, when a creative brain has big ideas, cut them some slack.
If there’s a big idea in “Tesla,” it’s hard to see — and not just because the film is claustrophobically set indoors, and lit by candles, matches, and glowing bulbs. Occasionally, cinematographer Sean Price Williams jolts the audience with an image that wouldn’t exist if Tesla hadn’t invented it, from the neon sizzle of the Tesla Coil, to the sight of Sarah Bernhardt, backlit and beautiful, thanks to the power of AC current. Mostly, Williams keeps the picture in shallow focus, giving shots a lovely daguerreotype blur. The style is formalistic, but playful. Almereyda turns the electrocution of axe murder Kemmler into a renaissance tableau, yet lets the camera roam free when Tesla and Anne strap on roller skates and go for a spin.
As Anne, Hewson is haughty and brusque, with delightfully goth black costumes outdone only by Dayan’s even more erotically frightful Bernhardt. Anne carries herself like the daughter of one of the richest men in America, which she was, and seems to be drawn to Tesla because he’s everything her father isn’t: an artist and thinker and, unfortunately for him, a fool with money.
Hawke refuses to play Tesla the way he’s popularly imagined: an innocent dreamer. His Tesla is stoic and disenchanted, so incapable of humor that he can claim to hear “the planets greeting each other” and no one thinks it’s a joke. (He also uses a dizzying amount of cat metaphors, such as, “Is nature a giant cat, and if so, who strokes its back?”) In turn, Anne tells him that electric currents makes her feel the presence of her dead cousin. She’s not joking, either, but the film chooses to drop the issue.
Almereyda lays tracks to take “Tesla” in a dozen wild directions. Early on, Anne whips out a MacBook to use Google image search. Later, Edison kills time on a cellphone. Almereyda’s entitled to meld past and present — Tesla was a man of the future. Yet, having ordered the audience onboard, Almereyda doesn’t go anywhere with the gambit. Instead, as a curtain call, Tesla karaokes Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” a song that might have had wry resonance for the inventor if he’d lived long enough to hear it. (Perhaps he foresaw that, too.) Kudos to Hawke, a gifted singer, for crooning the tune flat and off key, as his Tesla would have done. “I can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision,” he chants. Once more, with feeling.