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Movie review: ‘Tesla’ biopic is more eclectic than electric

Dana Barbuto
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A scene from "Tesla."

Engineering genius Nikola Tesla - the namesake for an 1980s hair band and a fancy line of electric cars - held more than 200 patents and pioneered key developments in radio, even though Guglielmo Marconi is credited with inventing it. Tesla (1856-1943), a Serb who spent most of his life in the U.S., lived during an era of invention and innovation and developed an intense rivalry with Thomas Edison over alternating current vs. direct current. Those dueling personalities - the introvert Tesla and the extrovert Edison - form the foundation of “Tesla.”

The race to electrify the world is a fascinating story - if told well (see 2017’s “The Current War”). But here writer-director Michael Almereyda (“Marjorie Prime”) is tasked with illuminating a - sorry to say - boring man. Even with the terrific Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”) cast as Tesla, the movie struggles to energize. Hawke, clad in prim suits, is all serious and stoic and speaks in whispers. Don’t watch too close to bedtime. You might nod off.

Almereyda gets gimmicky to compensate. Sometimes the inventiveness works; sometimes it doesn’t. When she’s not portraying Anne Morgan, Tesla’s sort-of love interest, the winsome Eve Hewson (“The Knick”) frequently provides “Big Short”-style narration with scenes showing her dressed in her character’s turn-of-the-century frocks reading Google search results off a MacBook. She also provides voiceover for “what-if” skits of fabricated events. They’re just there for fun: Tesla and Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) smooshing vanilla soft-serves in each other’s faces amid a disagreement. There are more tricks. Hawke belts out an in-character rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” the classic Tears for Fears song. Then there’s Edison checking his iPhone at a bar after he and Tesla settle their dispute. That’s another charade. The two were rivals until the bitter end. Many backdrops, too, are intentionally fake - and distracting. A little cleverness goes a long way, and the overindulgence eventually sinks the whole enterprise.

Almereyda eagerly eschews convention in favor of being weird, bathing his subject in a warm glow. He conjures a cocksure Edison, ribbing Tesla - who grew up near Transylvania - “Do you eat human flesh?” That’s from an early scene when Tesla was a newly hired engineer at Edison Machine Works. Things get stranger from there.

Other characters flow in and out with miniscule fanfare. There’s J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), Tesla’s assistant Anital Szigeti (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and the sultry French actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan). A bright spot is Jim Gaffigan’s performance as George Westinghouse, a lemonade-swilling industrialist with a bushy walrus moustache. He immediately changes the mood from brooding to convivial whenever he’s around.

Westinghouse seizes an opportunity to become Tesla’s patron and bets everything on the inventor’s risky alternating current. Good thing he took the chance. WiFi as we know it might have looked a lot different. Tesla worked on wireless communications more than a century ago. The world we are living and working in today is “a dream he first dreamed.” Edison tells Telsa at one point that he has “no sense of humor.” In the end, Almereyda gives the tortured genius the last laugh.

Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@patriotledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

“Tesla”

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson. Showing at Hingham Shipyard Cinemas and is available on most VOD and cable platforms.

(PG-13 for thematic material and nude images)

Grade: B-