By Leah Greenblatt
August 20, 2020 at 07:29 PM EDT
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Cara Howe/IFC Films

“Let the future tell the truth,” Nikola Tesla once said. And maybe only a man as relentlessly forward-looking as he was could appreciate a movie like Tesla, a portrait of the pioneering 19th-century scientist staged less like a traditional biopic than a piece of theatrical whimsy: real history surreally gilded with iPhones, roller skates, and '80s pop hits.

For more ordinary citizens, alas, writer-director Michael Almereyda’s determinedly offbeat approach makes it hard to build any real whole from its parts — which feels like even more of a shame considering the pains the film (in theaters and on VOD Aug. 21) takes to point out how little of his life is known and celebrated, relative to others in the field who achieved the same or far less.

Ethan Hawke, in many waistcoats and a walrus-y mustache, steps into the role of the distracted genius; an inventor, engineer, and crucial player in the discovery of alternating current who came to America from the country now known as Croatia and was lucky enough to land almost immediately in the bustling lab of Thomas Edison (an enjoyably pompous Kyle MacLachlan).

But when ego and misunderstanding, as much as any intellectual disagreement, soon turns them from collaborators to rivals, he is cast out, mostly unknown and unfunded. The only few who seem to have faith in young Nikola’s vision — apart from the imaginary Greek chorus that populates his inner world — are the folksy entrepreneur George Westinghouse (a jovial, mutton-chopped Jim Gaffigan) and a pretty young woman named Anne (The Knick’s Eve Hewson), who also happens to be the daughter of J. Pierrepont Morgan, one of the world’s wealthiest men.

What Anne can’t do is turn Nikola toward romance; for most of the movie, Hawke’s Tesla remains a sort of anxious cipher, a man so driven to see his electric dreams realized that he cannot see the forest — or really, most basic human needs — for the trees. (In last year’s The Current War, a more conventional telling of the Edison-Westinghouse rivalry starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult played him as a sort of vampiric dandy, jittery and bright; David Bowie offered his own drolly elegant take in 2006’s The Prestige, though far too briefly.)

There’s an earnest kind of desperation, almost madness, to Hawke’s version that feels worth exploring. But Almereyda, a long-time fixture of avant-garde cinema who previously directed the actor in his stylized 2000 update of Hamlet, is clearly uninterested in anything as staid as straightforward narrative. Amidst all his meta tricks — the winky callouts to Wikipedia, the deliberately kitsch sets and incongruous soundtrack — Tesla’s own story ultimately fades; a small, bright light lost in the bigger spectacle. B–

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