I was really looking forward to seeing American Ultra. It was sold to me as “Pineapple Express meets Jason Bourne,” and The New Yorker even lent it a veneer of profundity when film reviewer Richard Brody wrote, “the film’s deepest backstory involves the cruel absurdity of drug laws.”
After a long 96 minutes, I left the theater with the realization that American Ultra, which stars Jesse Eisenberg as a small-town stoner who must come to terms with the fact that he’s actually a CIA-created sleeper agent slated for extermination by his government, was built on an idea that probably sounded great when screenwriter Max Landis was high one night but, in practice, feels half-baked. Also, I’m fairly certain that whatever incisive commentary American Ultra offers on the nation’s drug laws – absurd and cruel as they are – is entirely incidental.
The real problem with the movie is that it’s not a particularly good stoner comedy, nor is it an especially compelling action flick. This failing can be traced back to the its fundamental unwillingness to commit to both genres; in trying to find a happy compromise for fans of either form, no one’s left happy. The wacky result of this generic identity crisis is that American Ultra can best lay claim to being a romance, of all things.
You can tell American Ultra isn’t a stoner film from the get-go: when Eisenberg and his handler-turned-girlfriend, played by Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, light up for the first time, the smoke that leaves their mouths reeks of CGI. The movie gets some mileage out of Eisenberg’s drug-inflected one-liners (as well as those of John Leguizamo, who plays Eisenberg’s manic dealer with practiced ease). Otherwise, the underlying premise – that Eisenberg is a calculating killer who’s smoked too much to remember his conditioning – goes criminally underexploited.
As for the action side of things: American Ultra’s fight scenes felt surprisingly tame, even typical. The movie was violent, gratuitously so, but, confusingly, it handled violence with extreme seriousness, which clashed with the prevailing comedic vibe. On top of this, it wanted very badly to be “cool” in the Jason Bourne sense, but the scripting simply wasn’t good enough.
American Ultra succeeds when Eisenberg and Stewart are together. The pair have obvious chemistry – see Adventureland – and it was a delight to watch their sentimentality and shared introversion play out on screen. Neither act is perfect: Eisenberg never fully abandons the awkward, gangly shtick he honed in Zombieland, which quickly stops befitting his character, and Stewart, who certainly deserves props for breaking out of the Twilight box, could’ve imparted more depth into her character. All things being equal, though, Eisenberg and Stewart deliver sufficiently strong performances that it’s impossible not to root for them and their relationship.
Flanked by an generally unremarkable supporting cast, Eisenberg and Stewart are the only things keeping American Ultra from flopping. Special praise goes to Leguizamo, as well as Walton Goggins for his surprisingly affecting portrayal of a CIA experiment gone wrong, but their collective screen time is too brief to make much of an impact.
The worst performance came from Topher Grace, of That ‘70s Show fame. Some, colored by their fandom, might be inclined to view his role charitably, but not me. As the movie’s chief antagonist, he played an arrogant and power-hungry CIA operator who, for reasons that never manifest themselves, takes it upon himself to eliminate Eisenberg. He endowed his character with a personality that was so gratingly puerile that I felt it necessary to slam my head against a wall until I forgot about him. Worse, though, was his inability to realize his character’s vast potential – a criticism that, upon reflection, can and should be directed at the entire film itself.
photo credit: gizmodo.com