[Screen It]


(2020) (Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson) (PG-13)

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Drama: A late 19th-century inventor must contend with competitors and the need to find investors for his projects.

It's the late 19th century and Nikola Tesla (ETHAN HAWKE) is an immigrant who's now in America working for legendary inventor Thomas Edison (KYLE MacLACHLAN). But he's getting nowhere with his brilliant ideas -- that are supported by his friend Anital Szigeti (EBON MOSS-BACHRACH) -- and Nikola and Edison soon part ways. Tesla ends up in an arrangement with another businessman, George Westinghouse (JIM GAFFIGAN), resulting in an electrical distribution showdown between Edison's support of the direct current model vs. Tesla's alternating current one.

But Edison has powerful allies in the likes of investor J.P. Morgan (DONNIE KESHAWARZ), although that man's adult daughter, Anne (EVE HEWSON), takes a liking to Nikola, and arranges for an investment in his work. But she longs for something more with the inventor, all while contending with famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt (REBECCA DAYAN) also seemingly having her eyes on the man. As all of that transpires, Tesla keeps his eyes on his various goals.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10

You sometimes hear people use the term "misunderstood genius" to describe people who are both, well, geniuses and misunderstood. They're usually the types that most people know little about outside of superficial qualities, often stemming from personalities and demeanors that range from prickly and standoffish to shy and reserved that prevent anyone from getting inside.

A modern-day example of that is Elon Musk, the founder of a company that became PayPal, as well as SpaceX, The Boring Company, and, of course, Tesla. That's his electric car outfit named after engineer, inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla who was born more than a century before the genius who borrowed his name.

Aside from his remarkable accomplishments -- and being who I call today's Thomas Edison -- I couldn't tell you a thing about Musk, which also holds true for his predecessor despite being portrayed in a number of movies such as 2006's "The Prestige" and last year's "The Current War" where he was played by David Bowie and Nicholas Hoult respectively.

Well, you can now add the simply titled "Tesla" to the collection of films that have done little to broaden the world's knowledge about the man and his work. Which is a shame since while those previous films had the man as a supporting character, here he's the lead. And despite Ethan Hawke doing his best to bring something to the character, he remains as nebulous as before.

Granted, it doesn't help that writer/director Michael Almereyda's handling of the material leaves, well, a lot to be desired and pretty much strands Hawke -- and everyone else for that matter -- on an island of creative self-indulgence. The first sign of that happens right away as our narrator -- Anne (Eve Hewson) -- talks about Tesla as compared to his contemporary rival, Edison, and informs us that if we Google both names we'll see the vast disparity in search results for the two.

All of which is fine and dandy, I suppose, but it just so happens that our narrator is also part of the main story -- she being the adult daughter of legendary business investor J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) -- that takes place long before Larry Page and Sergey Brin created the aforementioned search engine.

That's a bit jarring, as are some poorly designed (read: supposedly artsy) uses of rear projection that stick out like sore thumbs; Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) pulling out and checking his smartphone; and then the ultimate piece de resistance of surrealism that comes out of the blue. And that's Hawke playing Tesla doing a poorly sung karaoke version of Tears for Fears' 1985 hit "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

I'm not kidding.

Had Almereyda otherwise made a good film, perhaps I could have bought into such flights of fancy. Alas, he zips through the real-life material -- that's handled so much better in "The Current War" -- that little to none of it really registers. And to make matters worse, the way the filmmaker and Hawke have decided to portray the character as aloof and reserved makes him completely inaccessible to viewers and thus we don't care about him or his goals.

Granted, some -- meaning art house snobs and some critics -- will cry that Almereyda is a genius and that I'm misunderstanding his work. Perhaps that is true. But I'm fairly confident that everyone else would join me in using their PayPal accounts to rent a Tesla and transport this self-indulgent dreck to one of Musk's other ventures and either jettison this film into outer space or bury it so that it's out of sight and out of mind. Thank God Tears for Fears' lyric of "Nothing ever lasts forever" is correct in that I couldn't wait for this film to be over. "Tesla" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 17, 2020 / Posted August 21, 2020

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