Tesla (2020)

Premise: A freewheeling take on visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, his interactions with Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, and his breakthroughs in transmitting electrical power and light.

Tesla doesn’t seem to know what kind of biopic it wants to be. On one hand, it attempts the recent trend of having a character break the 4th wall to infuse cheap modern humor into an otherwise stuffy narrative. And on the other hand, well, it’s a stuffy narrative about the trials of tribulations of Nikola Tesla. Unfortunately, the film is a dud on both of those fronts. It leaves its audience with a dull, lifeless recounting of Tesla’s life that doesn’t seem too concerned about or focused on much of its subject. Meanwhile, the humor feels forced and falls flat every time.

The tale Tesla spins covers a couple of decades’ worth of his life. But it hops along its considerable timeline too quickly. There are detours where the film all but pays lip service to significant events that deserve bigger spotlights in a biopic about Nikola Tesla. Instead, we get a series of blink and you’ll miss it milestones whose lack of attention paid gives Tesla a listless and directionless quality. As a character, Tesla is written and performed as someone obsessed with the future and how his unique electrical breakthroughs could revolutionize mankind. The problem lies with the film’s reluctance to do anything interesting or outwardly dramatic with this characterization.

It would be difficult to follow the emotional journey of the character if not for the narration by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson). It’s unfortunate that the movie has to spell out every one of Tesla’s character beats, but it does add some color to the needless droning of the scenes between Tesla and others that make up most of the movie. Hewson does well in the role but it’s heavily marred by a mismatched tone (in comparison to the rest of the movie) and a dependence on an already tired trope.

The 4th wall breaking narration in Tesla doesn’t break any new ground. It adopts The Big Short’s approach to adding humor to otherwise dry subject matter. It worked in The Big Short because the subject matter in that movie was dry and complex. Here in Tesla, it just comes across as hopelessly lazy writing. Anne Morgan opens a laptop and tells us to Google Tesla and others to see how many results come up to gauge their historical relevance. But it never comes across as clever or even cute. In the 5 years since The Big Short, this trend has already become tired and lazy. The use of this narrative device in Tesla is no different.

It’s perhaps because of this that Tesla has a real crisis of tone. The 4th wall breaking is supposed to be comedic most of the time. Early in the film, we see an argument between Tesla and Edison that results in them taking turns smashing each other in the face with ice cream cones. Anne Morgan assures us it “probably didn’t happen like that” in an attempt to subvert our expectations for what the movie is supposed to be going for, far away from the conventional biopic. But any time the movie breaks that format, it falls completely flat. The ice cream bit isn’t funny. Instead, it just feels strange and too out of place.

Making things worse, everything outside of that framing device feels just as lifeless. Ethan Hawke does okay with what he’s given, which isn’t much. However, the movie jumps ahead so much in the timeline so frequently that there isn’t much time for Hawke to really deepen his performance past a perfunctory accent and some moody leering at other characters. Likewise, the supporting actors are simply there to move things along without any real dramatic flair or context. It’s like the actors were told to play each scene like nothing too dramatic or important is happening at all times.

The movie ends in a way that leans heavily into the comedy attempts that preceded it. Much like those comedy beats (and the movie as a whole), the ending doesn’t land the way the movie intends it to. In the end, Tesla feels like a movie attempting to pass muster by dressing a dull take on the inventor’s Wikipedia page with a framing device that ultimately falls flat. The humor doesn’t work, the performances are bland, and the story itself is a slog.

About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll. 

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