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‘Tesla’: Jolts of creative whimsy electrify a delightfully oddball biopic

Amid the anachronisms and fourth-wall breaking, there’s a great performance by Ethan Hawke as the futuristic visionary.

Ethan Hawke stars in the title role of “Tesla,” an oddball biopic about the electrical pioneer.
IFC Films

“Is nature a gigantic cat? And if so, who strokes its back?” – Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla”

Oh, that Tesla. What a strange one. Why is he talking about stroking a gigantic cat’s back? Well, because as a lad he noted a charge of static electricity when he stroked his cat — so as crazy as it sounds, Tesla’s question actually makes sense and is worth considering.

The same could be said of writer-director Michael Almereyda’s anachronistically bold and bizarre and delightfully oddball biopic “Tesla,” which features a 19th century narrator with a laptop computer; a scene in which Ethan Hawke’s Tesla mimics a Jedi warrior with two light sabers; a moment in which Thomas Edison scrolls through his smartphone at a pub, and a karaoke number with Tesla delivering a passionate rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” *

As crazy as it all sounds, it actually makes sense and is worth considering.

At the Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Tesla,” Almereyda said, “[This] is not a conventional biopic of a neurotic mathematical inventor. … [It’s] influenced by a lot of literature written on Tesla, but also movies by Derek Jarman, novels by Henry James and certain episodes of ‘Drunk History.’ ”

Ah, that old formula.

Kyle MacLachlan captures the cunning and huge ego of Thomas Edison.
IFC Films

Whereas the disappointingly stodgy “The Current War” told the intertwining stories of three legendary innovators and pioneers with Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse and Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla and focused primarily on events through Edison’s P.O.V., “Tesla” shifts the focus to Ethan Hawke’s Tesla, with Kyle MacLachlan as Edison and Jim Gaffigan as Westinghouse. This is a decidedly more brazen interpretation of historical events — and while it might drive some Telsa devotees and fact-sticklers batty, I found it to be a fantastically creative, fourth-wall-breaking, pop-art waking dream. Tesla was a man of great vision and untold idiosyncrasies — someone who these days would be labeled “on the spectrum,” or perhaps many spectrums. His legend deserves an unconventional telling.

Our narrator for the story is one Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of the enormously wealthy and powerful financier J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). Anne was hopelessly in love with the almost robotically efficient and outwardly cold Tesla, even though she knew he was incapable of returning her affections. Wearing period-appropriate clothing but apparently floating around in some kind of present-day universe, Anne flips open a MacBook and introduces us to the major characters by noting how many times their names come up in Google searches. She also pops in from time to time to let us know a scene we’ve just witnessed, e.g., Edison meets with Tesla against the backdrop of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and admits Tesla was right about Alternating Current vs. Direct Current, never happened.

Eve Hewson (right, with Emma O’Connor) narrates as J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne.
IFC Films

Even while indulging in so many flights of fancy, “Tesla” adheres to certain recorded truths and well-established bits of history and personality traits involving the main characters. MacLachlan does a superb job of capturing Edison’s cunning and intelligence and super-sized ego, as well as his penchant for public relations and branding. Gaffigan infuses Westinghouse with a slap-you-on-the-back gregariousness and a keen sense of self-awareness; he knows he’s not in the same intellectual league as the Edisons and Teslas of the world, but he can recognize genius and he knows how to get things done.

Ethan Hawke works and works and works — he has more than a dozen movie and TV credits in just the last three years, and just this week he’s in not only “Tesla” but also “Cut Throat City” — but the performances are sublime and searing. (He should have been nominated for an Oscar for “First Reformed.”) Hawke disavows the modern notion of Tesla as some kind of turn-of-the-century rock star and plays him as an enigmatic and even tragic figure who saw a world few if any others could see and was too busy reaching for the heavens to worry about connecting with others on Earth. It’s a great performance in a strange but beautiful film.

* “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears “(I can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision”) was the closing theme to a certain 1985 movie that ended with the villain’s house destroyed by an enormous amount of popping popcorn.

The movie: “Real Genius.” I see what you did there, Almereyda.