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Review: 'Tesla' pays tribute to its subject by over-promising, under-delivering

Ethan Hawke is Nikola Tesla in overreach of a biopic

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison are eating ice cream cones, discussing the finer points of alternating and direct current, when they get into a heated argument and begin smearing their ice cream cones all over one another. 

Did that ever happen? Probably not, but it sure happens in "Tesla," the bananas biopic of Tesla that takes an unconventional approach to an unconventional man. And it just might have worked if it didn't also happen to be deadly dull, which makes its fantastical flourishes feel like an even bigger reach.   

Ethan Hawke in "Tesla."

Ethan Hawke does a gravelly imitation of Christian Bale's Batman voice as Tesla, the pioneering inventor and big thinker. He was ahead of his time, yes, but "Tesla" takes that notion and goes wild with it, creating an anachronistic world where logic is tossed out the window and left for dead.

The action here is frequently interrupted by a narrator who Googles the likes of Tesla, Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan!), like a high schooler writing a paper off of Wikipedia. Tesla is often filmed against an obviously screened backdrop that makes the film look like an off-off-Broadway play. And it all wraps up with Tesla performing karaoke to a song released in 1985, a good 42 years after he died. (The song itself is too good to spoil and elicits a legit guffaw.) 

Rules were made to be broken, of course, but "Tesla" starts at crazy and only gets more ridiculous from there. In a sense, director Michael Almereyda ("Marjorie Prime") is paying tribute to Tesla's spirit by coloring so far outside the lines. But "Tesla" never manages to ground itself, which makes its high wire act feel more like a live wire, sputtering out of control. Stay away. 

'Tesla'

GRADE: D+

Rated PG-13: for some thematic material and nude images  

Running time: 102 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama