Depicting brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla as the most boring human being of all time seems like an impossible mission. But have no fear! Michael Almereyda is up to the task.
Boldly suppressing the inherent excitement of his subject at practically every turn, the writer/director of Experimenter — the terrific 2015 biopic about social psychologist Stanley Milgram — struggles in shepherding his latest fact-based story to the screen, resulting in a tonal nightmare rooted in hands-off direction.
Back working with his Hamlet star Ethan Hawke, Almereyda fails to instill in his leading man the fact that he’s portraying a 19th-century Croatian immigrant. Spouting awkward, overlong and laughably self-serious dialogue, the actor mainly sounds like himself while playing Tesla — with the rare exception when he sneaks in a halfhearted Eastern Bloc accent.
Though frustrating to witness, Hawke’s lack of investment is understandable. Almereyda gives him little to do in a script that tracks Tesla’s development of the alternating current motor and other electric innovations, touting the man’s genius and his repetitive lack of business acumen and social skills with equal flatness.
A match made in wax museum heaven, Eve Hewson (Bridge of Spies) equals — and possibly surpasses — Hawke’s lack of presence with her take on J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, who’s also mysteriously saddled with the thankless task of narrating Tesla.
Dressed in period garb yet operating a laptop and babbling about Google searches — part of a sad, uncommitted attempt at era-blending quirk that drops in iPhones and vacuum cleaners at random and painfully culminates in Hawke’s karaoke cover of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” — she delivers dry, lifeless insights on her love interest.
The stilted dramatic style is consistent across the cast, including Jim Gaffigan’s George Westinghouse, whose lone interesting quality is his fluffy handlebar mustache.
Amid this uninspired milieu, only Kyle MacLachlan’s turn as noted egomaniac Thomas Edison and Almereyda’s use of rear projection to transport his characters to bygone locales inject Tesla with any sense of personality.
Though employed to far greater effect in Experimenter, the increasing reliance on artificial backdrops, as well as miniatures and imaginative minimalist sets, improbably become the only thing to look forward to — besides the arrival of the end credits, that is.
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