As Nikola Tesla demands compensation for an invention from Thomas Edison, the two electrical pioneers eat ice cream cones. The standoff turns silly as Tesla and Edison shove the cones on each other's suits.
This didn't really happen. No, this is a detour of a scene from writer/director Michael Almereyda's new biopic "Tesla." However, the food fight is a memorably quirky display from a movie that could stand to be quirkier.
Distracting asides are nothing new for Almereyda, who directed 2000's techno-style "Hamlet" and 2017's underseen sci-fi drama "Marjorie Prime." In "Tesla," such scenes give passion and personality to an otherwise standard biography.
Subdued and sounding like Ron Burgundy from "Anchorman," Ethan Hawke stars as the troubled Tesla. Though Tesla lives a longer life than his rivals and makes millions, he is a man driven by dreams that seem out of time at the turn of the 20th century. As much of a revolutionary as Tesla was, Almereyda shows an inventor thinking of modern technologies like fiber optic internet, text messages and communicating with Mars in the late 1800s.
Here, Tesla is cold and calculating on the surface, but unable to hide his constantly moving brain. He admits that he sees "machines as an extension of people," but is haunted by the ghosts of his poverty-stricken past. Such disparities are visually shown and forced upon us via narration from Anne Morgan, a sort of partner to Tesla, played by Eve Hewson (TV's "The Knick").
The jolts of Morgan's voice are odd, at first, as she directly speaks with the audience, asking us to look at the Google results for Tesla compared to Edison. However, once Almereyda establishes his 1:1 ratio of boilerplate biography to warped scenes, "Tesla" moves from accomplishment to accomplishment.
"Tesla" isn't a bad movie, just confused. There are opportunities to go over the top, and when Almereyda does, "Tesla" is oddly beautiful. As the inventor thinks of electricity's life-saving qualities, he stands against a projection, acting as if he's controlling horses. In an early scene of Tesla showing the energy generated from his motor, the cinematography and neon lighting make the spectacle look like something out of "The Empire Strikes Back." Later in the film, a montage features Tesla singing karaoke.
As cringeworthy as that sounds, these scenes are full of life compared to the checking-off-boxes feel of others. More straightforward segments of the movie are dusty and Sepia-toned. The scope of his career-altering appearance at the Chicago World's Fair is tossed aside to show Edison's and Tesla's will-he or won't-he-acknowledge-me relationship (yawns).
The jumps in tone are jarring as Tesla is dreaming of Mars in one scene, then asking for money from J.P. Morgan in the next. The difference is the former is shot with the wonder we imagine Tesla might have had, and the latter is a placeholder for those who can't or won't google him.
When you have Tesla doing karaoke, why bother with the stuff you can find on Wikipedia? Why bother with the audience that doesn't have the bandwidth to use a simple search engine? This movie clearly isn't for them anyways.
STARRING: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Hannah Gross and Jim Gaffigan.
DIRECTED BY: Michael Almereyda.
NOW SHOWING: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Manship Theatre, $9.50. Masks required.
ALSO AVAILABLE: On demand Friday.
RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 42 mins.
MPAA RATING: PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
WHY IS THIS MOVIE RATED PG-13? For some thematic material and nude images.
Excellent (****), Good (***), Fair (**), Poor (*)