Review: ‘Landscape With Invisible Hand,’ starring Asante Blackk, Kylie Rogers and Tiffany Haddish

August 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Asante Blackk and Kylie Rogers in “Landscape With Invisible Hand” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Landscape With Invisible Hand”

Directed by Cory Finley

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2036 to 2037, in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi film “Landscape With Invisible Hand” (based on the 2017 book of the same name) features an African American and white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After an alien invasion leaves most people on Earth destitute and desperate for money, a teenage aspiring painter artist agrees to fake a romance with a classmate, in order to be paid to livestream their relationship, but problems occur when the teens are sued by an alien for fraud.

Culture Audience: “Landscape With Invisible Hand” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the book on which the movie is based, as well as movies that have commentary about social inequalities and cashing in on voyeurism.

Tiffaany Haddish and Asante Blackk in “Landscape With Invisible Hand” (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Landscape With Invisible Hand” is a mixed bag of quirky science fiction that sometimes gets boring and repetitive. However, the story is presented in a memorable cinematic way, and the performances do justice to the source material. “Landscape With Invisible Hand” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The movie’s title is explained in the movie’s last scene.

Written and directed by Cory Finley, “Landscape With Invisible Hand” is based on M.T. Anderson’s 2017 novel of the same name. It’s a movie with a low-key satirical tone that might not be appreciated by anyone expecting more comedic material. There’s some pointed commentary (in a “show, don’t tell” way) about colonialism, social class prejudices and the role that technology plays in people making money off of their private lives. Some of the commentary is right on target, while other commentary is a little too tame and should have been more impactful.

“Landscape With Invisible Hand” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city from the years 2036 to 2037) is told primarily from the perspective of 17-year-old introvert Adam Campbell (played by Asante Blackk), a very talented painter artist who wants to do his art for a living. In this story, Earth has been taken over by outer-space aliens called Vuvv, which have tentacles on their heads and have hands that look like oar paddles. When the Vuvv creatures talk, they rub their hands together, which makes a sound similar to sandpaper being rubbed together. The Vuvv creatures can speak human languages, but they do not have human emotions and are fascinated by anything that shows human emotions.

The Vuvv invasion of Earth has left almost everyone on Earth desolate and desperate for money, because the Vuvv creatures want humans to be at their financial mercy. People aren’t wandering around looking dirty and starving and dressed in raggedy clothing. The desperation is more subtle: People in this area have enough to eat and drink, and institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) are still running smoothly, but the cost of basic living has become increasingly too much for most of the population.

There’s a constantly hovering Vuvv “mothership” in the sky where some people have chosen to live, in order get “elite” and “special” treatment from the Vuvv creatures. But choosing to live on this enormous spaceship means that the selected humans often have to leave loved ones behind on Earth. There are signs of the apocalypse everywhere, including areas that look they were hit by a bomb. At one point in the movie, Adam tells a new classmate who becomes his love interest that he had a chance to live in this mothership, but he chose not to go.

Adam lives in a middle-class but increasingly run-down house with his mother Beth Campbell (played by Tiffany Haddish), a lawyer who can’t find work as a lawyer and has been struggling to pay the bills with the low-paying job she currently has. In this post-apocalyptic society, Beth is considered very lucky to have a job and a home, since many people on Earth are currently unemployed and have lost or are close to losing their homes. Adam’s quiet younger sister Natalie (played Brooklynn MacKinzie), who’s about 12 or 13 years old, also lives in the household.

Beth’s husband (played by William Jackson Harper), a real estate developer who doesn’t have a first name in the movie, left the family to find better job opportunities on the West Coast. Mr. Campbell eventually stopped keeping in touch with his wife and kids, who have all assumed that he abandoned them. They have no idea where he currently lives.

The main thing that gives Adam comfort during this bleak existence is his passion for painting. He usually paints portraits and landscapes on various surfaces. Throughout the movie, several paintings are shown (most of them are Adam’s paintings) which describe the title of the painting, the type of paint used, the type of surface and the year that the painting was completed. Natalie’s source of comfort is tending to a garden in the family’s empty backyard pool. Natalie is a very underdeveloped and forgettable character in this movie.

At school, Adam has a homeroom teacher named Mr. Stanley (played by John Newberg), who announces to the class that he is going to be replaced by an artificial intelligence hologram. Almost everyone on the teaching staff will be laid off for the same reason—all because the Vuvv creatures want it that way. It’s another example of how the Vuvv creatures abuse their power.

During an art class, Adam meets a new student during her first day at this school. Her name is Chloe Marsh (played by Kylie Rogers), who is smart but very jaded. Chloe is about the same age as Adam. She doesn’t take the art class seriously at all—when the class is asked to draw a portrait of a fellow student, she draws a giant penis instead—but Chloe and Adam have an instant rapport. She compliments Adam on his artistic talent. Adam is immediately attracted to her in a romantic way.

Chloe’s first day at school is jolted by a tragedy. While she, Adam and several people are outside in the front of the school, they see Mr. Stanley walk outside and shoot himself. The suicide is talked about later, but in a way implying that human suicides have become so common in this Vuvv-controlled world, suicide is not as shocking as it was before the Vuvv takeover of Earth.

Chloe tells Adam that she and her widowed and disillusioned father Mr. Marsh (played by Josh Hamilton) and angry older brother Hunter Marsh (played by Michael Gandolfini), who’s in his late teens, are temporarily homeless. Adam is eager to impress Chloe, so he invites the Marsh family to stay in the basement of his family’s house. At first, Beth thinks the Marsh family will only be staying for a few days. But then, over dinner in the family home, Adam tells Beth that he invited the Marsh family to stay as long as they need.

This news does not go down well with Beth, but she has enough compassion to not kick the Marsh family out of the house. Mr. Marsh is unemployed, but he promises Beth that he will start paying her rent when he finds a job. Meanwhile, Adam’s attraction to Chloe begins to grow. He is so infactuated with her, he paints a portrait of her and gives it to Chloe as a gift. She is very flattered, and there are indications she’s starting to be romantically attracted to Adam too.

One of the quirks about this new existence after the Vuvv invasion is that humans on Earth now have new types of food to consume. This food is usually jelly-like versions of solid foods that humans used to enjoy before the invasion. Solid foods in their original forms are considered luxurious delicacies. Hunter often whines and complains about the food that he has to eat.

Chloe eventually gets the idea to make money by getting involved in a livestreaming program called Courtship Broadcast, where people agree to livestream their love lives for the amusement of the Vuvv creatures. Courtship Broadcast works much like today’s social media: The more followers/subscribers someone has, the more potential there is to make money. People who livestream on Courtship Broadcast put detachable nodes on their foreheads to activate the livestream. When they want to interrupt or stop the livestream, they can remove the nodes from their foreheads.

Chloe convinces Adam to join Courtship Broadcast so that they can pretend to date each other and make money from it, in order to financially help their families. Adam reluctantly agrees. He instinctively knows that things could go wrong in faking this relationship. Chloe and Adam tell their families about the plan to fabricate a romance for Courtship Broadcast money.

But after a while, it starts to bother Adam that all the romantic talk and actions that Chloe is showing for Courtship Broadcast aren’t genuine, because she’s only doing it for the money. Adam wants their romance to be real. Chloe has genuine affectionate feelings for Adam, but the movie makes it look like he’s in love with her and wants a serious relationship, while she just likes him a lot and wants a “friend with benefits” situation.

Eventually, one of the Vuvv creatures named Vuvv Shirley—who is watching Adam and Chloe’s “romance” and is a Courtship Broadcast subscriber—figures out that Adam and Chloe are faking it. Chole and Adam are summoned to Vuvv Shirley’s office, where she informs the two teens that she’s suing them for fraud for “millions” in money—enough for the Campbell and Marsh families to be “in debt for six generations.”

Vuvv Shirley offers a solution that involves some bizarre role-playing scenarios where a Vuvv arrrives to live in the Campbell household. Without giving away too much information, these scenarios require Beth to be passive and subservient to this Vuvv creature. And the reaction from outspoken and independent Beth is exactly what you think it is.

Meanwhile, there are some other power dynamics at play that cause tensions in the household. Even though Beth has generously given the Marsh family a place to live (and eventually, Mr. Marsh starts paying rent), Mr. Marsh and Hunter act entitled and privileged toward Beth. A big argument erupts when Mr. Marsh and Hunter use Beth’s computer without her permission and insult her when she politely tells them to next time ask permission to use any of her things.

There’s an unspoken racial subtext to the hostility that Mr. Marsh and Hunter express toward Beth, but the movie seems afraid to fully acknowledge why there is this resentment. Mr. Marsh tells Beth that he’s not used to being in this situation of being financially poor and living in someone else’s house. What he doesn’t say out loud is that it also makes him uncomfortable to be living in a house with a house where a black woman has more money and power than he does.

Mr. Marsh also shows subtle but noticeable racial discomfort over Adam and Chloe kissing, even if it’s for the Courtship Broadcast. Mr. Marsh seems afraid of Chloe developing real romantic feelings for Adam, who is obviously starting to fall in love with Chloe. Mr. Marsh even describes Adam as a “loser,” even though Adam has never shown any indication that he’s a bad person or is forcing Chloe to do anything that she doesn’t want to do. (Remember, it was her idea to fake the romance for money.)

“Landscape With Invisible Hand” seems to want to say a lot about the lengths that certain people will go to make money and what that might do to someone’s pride, ego or dignity. Some of the scenarios get a little tedious. It’s constantly shown that the Vuvv creatures are manipulative control freaks, but whatever mayhem and disruption they’re causing, it doesn’t seem to be doing the Vuvv much good either. Who wants to be in charge of a planet that’s in disarray caused by the very entities that invaded the planet?

There’s a scene where Chloe and Adam are driven by golf cart to an abandoned golf course. The driver (played by Vishwas) tells the two teens that he used to be a surgeon, but he gets much more money from the Vuvv creatures to be a human driver, which is considered a “status symbol” instead of having a hologram driver. Aside from showing that the Vuvvs use humans as pawns for the Vuvvs’ amusement, this anecdote doesn’t serve much a purpose in the story.

What isn’t explained in “Landscape With Invisible Hand” is why the billions of people on Earth seem to have given up on trying to get back control of their lives from the Vuvv. There are never any references to what Earth’s leaders or even leaders of the United States have done about this alien takeover. Adam’s painting talent leads to pivotal part of the movie, but the conclusion of that part of the storyline kind of falls flat.

What makes the movie interesting are the lead performances by Blackk and Rogers, who adeptly convey that despite all the upheaval in the lives of Adam and Chloe, they still want to live their lives in the way that teenagers usually did before this Vuvv invasion. It’s not quite a rebellion against the Vuvv, but it’s a way for Adam and Chloe to forge their own paths and their own identities when they are brink of adulthood. In a world where the Vuvvs are trying to control people though money, the one thing that the Vuvvs can’t control are human emotions.

“Landscape With Invisible Hand” is not the type of movie where the teens have a breakthrough friendship bond with a mysterious alien. It’s also not a post-apocalyptic movie where people are living like feral animals. It’s a movie that gets viewers to think about personal values and staying true to oneself when it might be easier or financially rewarding to be fake about it all.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Landscape With Invisible Hand” in select U.S. cinemas on August 18, 2023.

Review: ‘A Mouthful of Air,’ starring Amanda Seyfried and Finn Wittrock

October 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Amanda Seyfried in “A Mouthful of Air” (Photo courtesy of Stage 6 Films/Sony Pictures)

“A Mouthful of Air”

Directed by Amy Koppelman

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City in the mid-1990s and briefly in the early 2020s, the dramatic film “A Mouthful of Air” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A children’s book author/illustrator, who has lifelong issues with depression, tries to fight suicidal thoughts after she has given birth to her first child.

Culture Audience: “A Mouthful of Air” will appeal primarily to people who want to see tearjerking issues about depression from a female perspective, even if those issues are presented through a very privileged and glossy lens.

Amanda Seyfried and Finn Wittrock in “A Mouthful of Air” (Photo courtesy of Stage 6 Films/Sony Pictures)

Amanda Seyfried’s heartbreaking and complex performance is the main reason to see the depressing drama “A Mouthful of Air,” which at times gets a little too trite in this story about a young mother who’s struggling with suicidal thoughts. Although the movie is being described as a story about post-partum depression, viewers learn from watching “A Mouthful of Air” that Seyfried’s Julie Davis character, who’s in her early-to-mid-30s, has been depressed and thinking about committing suicide ever since she was 6 or 7 years old.

“A Mouthful of Air” is the feature-film directorial debut of Amy Koppelman, who is one of the movie’s producers. Koppelman also wrote the screenplay for “A Mouthful of Air,” which is based on her 2003 novel of the same name. In the book, Julie is 26, but Seyfried and Finn Wittrock (who plays Julie’s loving but often-frustrated husband, Ethan Davis) made this movie when they were both in their 30s, and they both look like their real ages. By having actors in their 30s (instead of in their 20s) in these roles, it gives “A Mouthful of Air” a lot more emotional gravitas. People in their mid-20s aren’t expected to have their lives on track and settled as much as people in their mid-30s.

“Settled” might be how someone would describe Julie and Ethan’s domestic life in New York City, where they are living in a comfortably middle-class apartment, sometime in the mid-1990s. “Settled” is not how someone would describe Julie’s state of mind. Julie is a children’s book author/illustrator who works from home, while Ethan works outside the home in an unnamed white-collar business job. The movie never states how long Julie and Ethan have been married, but they’ve recently welcomed their first child into the world: a son named Teddy (played by Olivia Kutz and Christian Kutz), who’s 9 months old when he’s first seen on screen.

Julie seems to be a blissful and loving mother to Teddy in the movie’s opening scene, until it becomes apparent that she’s actually very unhappy. Julie starts off cheerfully feeding her baby and telling Teddy that his cousin Ellie will be coming over soon for a playdate. Gradually, Julie’s sadness begins to show, until she can barely hold back her tears. While Teddy is placed safely in a baby chair, in the living room, with the TV on to distract him, a sorrowful-looking Julie goes into the bathroom and takes out a syringe and begins crying. Does she have a drug problem? Is she about to shoot up with the needle?

The movie doesn’t actually show what happened in the bathroom, but it does reveal that Julie ended up in a hospital because she tried commit suicide by cutting her wrists. A flashback reveals that Julie’s sister-in-law/Ethan’s sister Lucy (played by Jennifer Carpenter) was the one who discovered Julie after this suicide attempt when Lucy came over to visit with her toddler daughter Ellie. Because Julie had been expecting this visit, Julie knew that Lucy would find her soon after making this suicide attempt.

The hospital psychiatrist who meets with Julie is named Dr. Sylvester (played Paul Giamatti), who is compassionate but firm in his ongoing treatment of her. During this first meeting, Dr. Sylvester asks Julie how long she’s been having suicidal thoughts. She tells him that she’s had these on-again/off-again suicidal thoughts since she was in the first grade. This suicide attempt was her first.

It’s soon revealed that Julie has been diagnosed with having anxiety and depression, but she stopped taking her medication for an unspecified period of time before her suicide attempt. It’s a frustrating cycle experienced by people who take medication for mental illnesses. The medication can work, but that leads to the patient thinking that the disease is under control, so the patient often stops taking the medication, which leads to the disease being aggravated all over again.

Julie confides in Dr. Sylvester that part of her anxiety has to do with feeling that she’s a horrible mother. She’s also constantly worried about Teddy getting hurt. This leads Dr. Sylvester to tell her a story about when he was a kid, he heard a widespread false rumor that Bubble Yum bubblegum had spider eggs in it.

Even though he says the rational side of him knows this rumor was debunked years ago, Dr. Sylvester said he had an irrational, knee-jerk reaction to not let his young daughter get Bubble Yum when she picked up a packet of the gum at a store. Dr. Sylvester uses a metaphor when he tells her, “I guess we all need to learn where the spider eggs are. And, perhaps more importantly, where they are not.”

The aftermath of Julie’s suicide attempt is felt and expressed in different ways by her adult family members. Ethan is more determined than ever not to let Julie go off her medication, even though she tries to persuade him that therapy is all she needs to handle her mental illness. Ethan is careful not to scold her or blame her, but the stress of worrying about Julie has taken a toll on their marriage. Julie is very insecure and sometimes accuses Ethan of being disinterested and being emotionally distant with her. In actuality, this could be Ethan’s way of coping with having a paranoid and moody spouse.

Meanwhile, Julie’s mother Bobbi (played by Amy Irving) tries to avoid talking about the suicide attempt when she visits Julie, who is her only child. Bobbi is an upbeat and doting grandmother, but she’s got her own personal issues. Bobbi has never quite gotten over her divorce from her ex-husband Ron (played by Michael Gaston), whom she hopes will reunite with her someday. When Bobbi mentions to Julie that they should have a birthday party for Teddy when he turns a year old, Bobbi also blurts out an ulterior motive for why she wants to have this party: “It would be easier for your father to come back.”

It seems that mental illness runs in Julie’s family. Through conversations and Julie’s flashbacks to when Julie was 8 years old (played by Cate Elefante), it’s revealed that Ron was physically and emotionally abusive to her. In one harrowing flashback, Ron angrily yells and chases after Julie as if he’s about to physically attack her, while Bobbi stands by and says and does nothing. It explains why an adult Julie seems to have a somewhat uneasy relationship with her mother. Bobbi also mentions to an adult Julie that Ron frequently disappears and is unreachable, while Julie somewhat coldly answers, “Maybe he doesn’t want to be found.”

Julie’s unhappy childhood has been haunting her in ways other than her low self-esteem. One of the things that Julie has an irrational fear of is living in a house, probably because houses remind her of her childhood. Ethan has been wanting to move out of their New York City apartment to a house with more space in upstate New York. However, Julie doesn’t like the idea. It’s one of the things that she and Ethan argue about.

One night, after Julie has been discharged from the hospital, she and Ethan decide to spend time at a bar with his sister Lucy and Lucy’s husband Kevin (played by Darren Goldstein), who is a good friend of Ethan’s. It’s one of Julie’s first nights out since the suicide attempt. Julie tries to make pleasant small talk at the table, but Lucy is fuming because Lucy thinks everyone is avoiding talking about the problems caused by Julie’s suicide attempt.

Lucy starts off expressing her irritation that Julie’s problems have to be the center of the family’s attention. Lucy then unleashes her anger at how Julie didn’t properly acknowledge how traumatic it would be for anyone to find her dying after a suicide attempt. It’s a reference to how Julie tried to kill herself with the knowledge that Lucy would be coming over soon to visit. Lucy also bitterly tells Julie that Ethan had to continue to clean up Julie’s blood in the apartment when Julie was recovering in the hospital.

Ethan and Kevin, who were expecting a relaxing night out, don’t think it’s appropriate for Lucy to bring all of these issues up in the conversation, and they try to get her to stop. However, Lucy won’t be silenced. Carpenter’s role as Lucy in “A Mouthful of Air” doesn’t get much screen time, but it’s a pivotal and well-acted performance. Lucy’s rant is the first time that a family member other than Ethan is shown expressing anger at how a family member’s mental illness can cause resentment because of all the time, energy and heartbreak involved in taking care of and worrying about the person with the mental illness.

Julie’s empathetic response to Lucy’s tirade is an indication that Julie isn’t completely self-absorbed. However, because Julie is deeply unhappy and paranoid, she goes back to her familiar patterns of thinking that she’s a loser and that her family would be better off without her. Meanwhile, a visit to her obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Salzman (played by Josh Hamilton), who knows about her suicide attempt, results in another turn of events for Julie and Ethan.

Julie’s claim to fame as a children’s book author/illustrator is creating a fairy-tale character called Pinky Tinkerbink, a girl who copes with challenges while learning some life lessons. “A Mouthful of Air” has some of Julie’s whimsical drawings (which have a lot of rainbows and clouds) that come to life in animation. When Julie does a book reading to some kindergarten-age kids at their school, she essentially admits that she created the Pinky Tinkerbink character to be the kind of heroic friend that she never had as a child.

Seyfried gives a very emotionally nuanced performance as someone who realistically shows the gamut of what people with mental health struggles often experience. She’s stubborn when she resists taking her medication, but she flip-flops on how much attention (including pity) that she wants from her loved ones for her problems. Julie is neither a saint nor a villain but someone who finds it difficult to get outside of her own head.

Wittrock also gives a believable performance as a spouse whose patience is tested by his wife’s struggles with her mental health. As much as Julie feels inadequate about being a good wife and mother, Ethan feels his own angst about his role in the family, since husbands and fathers often feel like they have to be the biggest protectors of their families. Ethan feels powerless to help Julie in boosting her self-esteem, which can be very difficult for a suicidal person. The power to change must come from within that person, and it’s a lot easier said than done.

And that’s why “A Mouthful of Air” can sometimes veer into superficial platitudes when depicting these serious problems. For example, in a scene where Julie is getting an exam from Dr. Salzman, she tells him how she’s been doing since her suicide attempt. She says, “I was walking through a world that was black and white, and now I’m just starting to see color again.” Who talks like in such a hokey way when discussing their mental illness? It might be excused that Julie talks like that because she’s a children’s book writer, but it’s still a cringworthy line of dialogue.

“A Mouthful of Air” also falls into very familiar tropes of movies about women with post-partum depression issues: These movies are almost always about middle-class or wealthy white women with supportive spouses/partners, thereby ignoring the fact that women from all walks of life can have the same issues too. The focus on this specific demographic of white women who are middle-class or wealthy is probably because filmmakers want to show that even women who seem to have a lot of advantages in life (white privilege, financial stabilty, access to good health care) can still be miserable.

However, it’s a huge blind spot when any movie fails to acknowledge that women from all races and social classes have these mental health struggles too. Julie is never shown doing any group therapy, nor is group therapy is ever suggested to her. And if she has any friends who are not family members, these friends are not shown in the movie at all. “A Mouthful of Air” tacks on a short public-service-announcement type of statement as an epilogue to encourage anyone with these struggles to get help. But it completely ignores that “getting help” and the quality of that help are often determined by someone’s socioeconomic status.

There’s also a “trigger warning” briefly flashed at the beginning of the movie, to let viewers know that the movie might be upsetting to people with the same issues. The filmmakers seem to have the right intentions. “A Mouthful of Air” fortunately does not exploit these issues with explicit scenes of what Julie does to harm herself.

Seyfried’s admirable performance elevates the material, which at times feels overly polished in how it glosses over these very messy issues. The movie’s biggest flaw is that it takes for granted that Julie is someone who has the time, the health insurance and the ideal support system to get the treatment that she needs. “A Mouthful of Air” could have used more of a reality check that depression issues that are worth making a movie about don’t just affect people who have the advantages to get the proper treatment for their depression.

Stage 6 Films released “A Mouthful of Air” in select U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021.

Review: ‘Tesla,’ starring Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan and Hannah Gross

August 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ethan Hawke in “Tesla” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)


Directed by Michael Almereyda

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S. Northeast and in Colorado, primarily from 1884 to 1901, the dramatic film “Tesla” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant in the United States who later became a U.S. citizen, is a brilliant inventor, but he struggles to get investors and he experiences bad business deals.

Culture Audience: “Tesla” will appeal mostly to people who are open to experimental biopics, since the movie has some unconventional elements that viewers will either like or dislike.

Ethan Hawke and Eve Hewson in “Tesla” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

If you think a movie called “Tesla,” about pioneering Serbian American inventor Nikola Tesla, who died in 1943 at the age of 86, is a stuffy affair with the usual biopic tropes, think again. “Tesla” writer/director Michael Almereyda’s very unconventional depiction of Tesla’s life has some out-of-left-field scenes that will either intrigue or annoy viewers. The movie should be commended for taking some bold risks, although the pacing in some parts of “Tesla” drags to the point where people might get bored.

That’s because “Tesla” is more of an introspective and murky think piece instead of a rousing story about one of science’s pioneers who was underrated and often overlooked during his time. (Tesla’s name was the inspiration for the tech company founded by Elon Musk, as well as the California-based rock band Tesla, which had hits in the 1980s and early 1990s.) The movie “Tesla” might hold the interest of people who don’t want to see a typical biopic, but everyone else should stay clear of this movie if they want something that sticks to a briskly paced “feel good” formula. And this movie (which mostly takes place from 1884 to 1901) isn’t really told from Tesla’s perspective.

One of the unpredictable aspects of “Tesla” is that Tesla (played by Ethan Hawke) is almost like a supporting character in this story that’s supposed to be about Tesla’s life. The movie is narrated by heiress/philanthropist Anne Morgan (played by Eve Hewson), who befriends Tesla in the movie and offers observations of him, as if she’s commenting in the present day. (In real life, she died in 1952, at the age of 78.) For example, there are multiple scenes with Anne using an Apple laptop computer and mentioning that if people do Google searches on inventors Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Tesla, there are millions more search results for Edison and Westinghouse than there are for Tesla.

The point is clear: Tesla, who worked with Edison and Westinghouse during various parts of his career, is still frequently overshadowed by them in the present day, just as he was when he was alive. Does the movie “Tesla” present him as a misunderstood genius? Yes and no.

On the one hand, the movie shows how Tesla (who immigrated to the U.S. in 1884) could excel as a scientist/inventor. His inventions included designing one of the first alternate current [AC] hydroelectric power plants in the United States in 1895. On the other hand, Tesla wasn’t so smart when it came to business. The movie depicts some well-documented situations when he was notoriously cheated in business deals and made other bad financial decisions that left him destitute by the time he died.

The “Tesla” movie makes it clear, through Anne’s constant narration, that Tesla was so introverted that the few people he allowed to get close to him often did not know what he was thinking. Anne explains that one of the biggest frustrations she had with Tesla was that he “lives inside his head” too much.

The movie shows that, in addition to Anne, there was one person Tesla was close to in his prime years as an inventor: his assistant Anthony Szigeti (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a Hungarian engineer whom Tesla met when they were students at Prague University. There’s a scene where Tesla shows that he’s still haunted by the death of his brother Dane, who died in a horsing accident at the age of 12, when Tesla was 7. Tesla confides to Anthony about his beloved brother Dane: “He was the brilliant one. I could never measure up.”

And the movie also depicts that although Tesla certainly excelled in his intellectual pursuits, due to his pioneering work with electricity, he placed his work over his personal life. Tesla never married, did not have children, and he died alone. Anne mentions in voiceover narration that Tesla was very close to his mother in his childhood. Anne says aloud at one point in the movie: “I came to wonder: Could any woman touch or reach Tesla the way his mother had?”

In the movie, Anne is just a platonic friend to Tesla, although it’s hinted that at some point that she had a romantic attraction to him, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Anne cared a great deal about what Tesla thought of her, as evidenced in a scene where Anne and Tesla are rollerskating together in a courtyard. Tesla falls down and cuts short the activity. “I’m fine,” he tells Anne. “Sometimes I have an unfavorable reaction to pearls.” Anne then hastily takes off the pearl necklace she is wearing.

French superstar actress Sarah Bernhardt (played by Rebecca Dayan) has a brief flirtation with Tesla, but it never goes anywhere, since they only encounter each other occasionally at social events. During one of those encounters, Sarah emerges in a scene set to electronic dance music. It’s one of many scenes where the movie infuses modern elements of things that weren’t invented yet during the time period depicted in the movie.

Other real-life people depicted in the movie include banker Alfred Brown (played by Ian Lithgow) and attorney Charles Peck (played by Michael Mastro), two investors who formed the Tesla Electric Company with Tesla and helped Tesla set up his own lab in 1887. Also portrayed in the movie are writer/editor Robert Underwood Johnson (played by Josh Hamilton), who was best known for his work with The Century Magazine, and his wife Katharine Johnson (played by Lucy Walters), who both befriended Tesla in the 1890s.

Hawke, who starred in director Almereyda’s 2000 movie adaptation of “Hamlet,” certainly wasn’t cast in the role of Tesla because of his physical resemblance. In real life, Tesla was about 6’2″ and had a rail-thin figure. Hawke is 5’10” and has an average build. And Hawke’s accent in the movie isn’t that great. It’s supposed to be a Serbian accent, but it comes out sounding quasi-European.

However, what Hawke does capture well (and it looks like this was the intention of the filmmakers) is Tesla’s introverted nature, his reluctance to deal with confrontation and his almost blind trust that other inventors would have the same type of integrity that he seemed to have. There are several scenes in the movie that show how Tesla could be in a room with other people and be overshadowed by people with bigger personalities and more financial clout.

Anne, a daughter of wealthy banker J.P. Morgan (played by Donnie Keshawarz), is one of those people, as depicted in this movie. Even though she’s much younger than Tesla, she has the power to get him major investment money via her father. And being the narrator of this movie, Anne’s confident personality shines through much more than Tesla’s.

Anne would become an outspoken feminist later in her life, and the movie shows signs of her being a free thinker who wasn’t afraid to go against tradition. She likes to challenge Tesla with questions having to do with science or philosophy. In one scene, Anne says to Tesla: “Idealism cannot work together with capitalism. True or false?”

Another personality that outshines Tesla’s is that of Thomas Edison (played by Kyle MacLachlan), the flashy inventor who took big risks and was often accused of taking credit for other people’s work. Tesla was sometime caught between the bitter rivalry of Edison and the more low-key George Westinghouse (played by Jim Gaffigan), but the end result was that Tesla was helped and hurt by his business deals with both of these titan inventors. Westinghouse was not as much of an attention-seeker as Edison was, but the movie shows that Westinghouse (just like Edison) was also capable of making ruthless business decisions, at the expense of alienating colleagues and in order to make himself wealthy.

Of the three inventors, Edison is one who’s depicted in the least flattering way in the movie. In a scene taking place in New York City in 1884, and portraying recent immigrant Tesla joining his new employer Edison for dinner with some other men, Edison shows some xenophobia by trying to embarrass Tesla with these questions: “Is it true that you’re from Transylvania? Have you ever eaten human flesh?” Edison then tries to laugh off these insults by saying, “We like to give the new men a hard time.”

Edison is essentially portrayed as a pompous blowhard who could be short-sighted if he couldn’t see immediate ways to make money. In one scene, Edison tells a group of businessmen: “Alternating current is a waste of time. There’s no future in it.” And in another scene, Tesla comments on Edison: “He talks to everyone but is incapable of listening.”

The movie has some whimsical fantasy sequences that Anne admits in narration never happened. One is a scene depicting Edison and Tesla getting into an argument, and they take ice cream cones that they’re holding and smash each cone on the other person. Another fabricated scene is one where Edison meets Tesla in a saloon and makes an apology to Tesla, who worked briefly for Edison from 1884 to 1885. And who really knows if Tesla and Anne ever rollerskated together in a courtyard? However, it’s depicted more than once in the movie.

The movie also portrays milestone achievements in science and technology, such as the invention of the phonograph, indoor electrical wiring and the first experiments in human electrocution. In all of these depictions, Edison or Westinghouse get all the glory, while Tesla’s contributions are trivialized to the media and to the public. The movie also shows Tesla in various times and places, such as New York City in 1881; Pittsburgh in 1888; Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1899; and New York state’s Long Island in 1901.

Anne narrates what goes on in the personal lives of Edison and Westinghouse, including Edison’s marriage to second wife Mina Miller Edison (played by Hannah Gross), who had a big influence on her husband’s business decisions. The movie even goes as far to show some of Edison’s courtship with Mina, when she was engaged to marry a preacher’s son. It’s another example of how much of Tesla’s life takes a back seat to larger personalities in the movie.

The Tesla scene in the movie that most people will talk about or remember is one of those “bizarre time warp” moments, because it shows Tesla, alone with a microphone, belting out Tears for Fears’ 1985 hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” It’s not performed in an upbeat karaoke way, but in a world-weary way that reflects Tesla’s state of mind of being worn down by his life’s disappointments. This scene is so kooky and unexpected that viewers will either love it or hate it.

Is this “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” scene meant to be funny or edgy? That’s up to viewers decide. The scene comes near the end of the movie, and it’s a welcome jolt from some of the tedium that happens during various parts of this unevenly paced film.

Because indoor electrical wiring was still a luxury for most of the time period in which the movie takes place, many of the interior scenes are darkly lit and present many of the characters in dour and shadowy tones. And the movie doesn’t offer a lot of scenes of Tesla actually doing any inventing, probably because the filmmakers thought that these types of scenes would bore viewers who aren’t science-minded.

Tesla isn’t always center stage in this story, and that might be off-putting to viewers who are expecting an in-depth portrayal of his personality. But it’s obvious that Tesla was an enigma to many people who knew him. Would it have been better for a movie about Tesla to invent aspects of his personality that might not have existed, just to be a more crowd-pleasing movie? It’s obvious that the filmmakers decided to keep Tesla an enigma and throw in some modern and unexpected twists in telling this story.

For a more conventional portrayal of Tesla, people can see director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2019 dramatic film “The Current War: The Director’s Cut,” which is about the competition between Edison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon), with Nicholas Hoult in the supporting role of Tesla. Just like with the “Tesla” movie, “The Current War: The Director’s Cut” has cast members whose acting talent elevates the flawed screenplay. “Tesla” offers enough original unpredictability that makes this movie worth watching for anyone who’s curious to see an artsy, non-traditional version of Tesla’s life.

IFC Films released “Tesla” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on August 21, 2020.

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