By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Michael Almereyda. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic material and nude images). Running time: 103 minutes.
“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 lightsabers, 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.
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 POV, “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.
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.
Political satire, R, 101 m., 2020
Steve Carell gives a finely honed performance as a slick political strategist trying to convince a retired Marine (Chris Cooper) to run for mayor of his small Wisconsin town. Writer-director Jon Stewart has created a timely and entertaining satire with one of the most likable casts of the year. Rating: Three stars.
‘Yes, God, Yes’
Comedy, R, 78 m., 2020
Natalia Dyer (“Stranger Things”) gives a winning performance as a 16-year-old Catholic schoolgirl combating nasty gossip while exploring her sexuality in the early 2000s. Much of the humor is over the top, but there are essential truths ringing throughout. Rating: Three stars.
Comedy drama, R, 136 m., 2020
The funnier moments of this divorce story are reminiscent of 1970s/1980s Woody Allen, whereas the confrontational scenes are more Ingmar Bergman-esque, giving stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson the opportunity to flex their Oscar muscles. Rating: Three stars.
‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’
Thriller, R, 98 m., 2020
This grim but wickedly entertaining bit of business stars Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland and Mick Jagger as a rich, conniving art dealer. It’s seasoned with sharp little plot turns before an admittedly ludicrous but dramatically satisfying twist-on-top-of-a-twist ending. Rating: Three stars.
Copyright 2020 Chicago Sun Times