Today’s film was pitched and sold as a kind of genre mash-up, combining the high-octane action of a modern spy thriller with the laid-back humor of a stoner comedy. Our super-spy is played by Jesse Eisenberg, an Oscar nominee who doesn’t even look like a halfway decent Lex Luthor at first blush. His costar is Kristen Stewart, still continuing to struggle with her reputation as a piss-poor actress (which is not undeserved, I’m sorry to say). The script comes to us from Max Landis, still best known to cinephiles as the son of legendary filmmaker John Landis and the writer of an odd little movie called Chronicle. The younger Landis also gained significant geek cred with his whip-smart send-up of the “Death and Return of Superman” comic book story arc. As for the director, Nima Nourizadeh only has one other film under his belt: The ill-received found footage teen party disaster, Project X.
The movie has already been labeled as a failure, with a pitiful $5.4 million opening weekend gross and a Tomatometer in the forties. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the film itself is bad. Though there’s always a possibility that a movie flat sucks, it’s equally possible that a movie made in open defiance of genre conventions, with an awkward August release date, would be passed over by mainstream audiences who didn’t realize what they had. Heaven knows it’s happened before (*A-HEM*).
So is American Ultra a misunderstood gem of creativity, or is it really just that bad? Well… it’s a little of both.
To take it from the top, our main character is Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg). He works at a convenience store (which doesn’t seem to have any other employees), he draws comics about a spacefaring monkey, and he smokes pot as a way to cope with his phobias and panic attacks. He’s living with his girlfriend (Phoebe, played by Kristen Stewart), though it’s anyone’s guess why she’s so in love that she puts up with Mike’s constant fuck-uppery.
What Mike doesn’t know is that he’s the product of an experimental CIA “super soldier” program that was discontinued for ethical reasons. So his world-class training was buried under so many false memories and Mike was sent out to live the rest of his days in a small West Virginia town. Then along comes a douchebag.
Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) is a desk jockey who’s just brown-nosed his way up to a key position in the CIA. And for whatever reason, Yates decides to go and stir up the hornet’s nest by erasing all trace of Mike and the program he was part of. This doesn’t sit well with Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), Yates’ predecessor, the CIA officer who first commissioned the program and ultimately decided to cancel it. So, in the interest of saving Mike’s life, she goes out into the field and re-activates his conditioning. The whole bloody mess kinda spirals out of control from there.
To get this out of the way early, the basic idea of blending a stoner comedy with a spy actioner makes a surprising amount of sense. After all, our main character’s head is suddenly flooded with images and memories with no idea of how they got there, he’s in the middle of a massive government conspiracy, and he’s paranoid about all the people trying to find and kill him. You’d forgive the guy for staying in denial and blaming it all on the THC.
It’s a brilliant idea in theory. But in practice, it never quite gels.
Blaming the director would be easy, and there’s no doubt that Nourizadeh is at least partly responsible. Making this project into something greater than the sum of its parts was a very tall order for a guy whose only previous accomplishment was a crappy found-footage movie. I’m sure Nourizadeh was trying his hardest, and I give him full credit for some kickass action sequences. But when it comes to staging the comedy and the action in such a way that they enhance each other, the end result falls regrettably short.
It’s such a disappointment because I know that comedy/action blends can work so well. Scott Pilgrim and Detention are both absolutely brilliant genre mashups, in large part because of how they embrace their batshit crazy nature. This film, however, doesn’t seem to know exactly how grounded it wants to be. I’d argue that the movie might have been far stronger if the filmmakers were far less hesitant about going full-tilt and having fun with what’s admittedly a pretty silly premise. Also, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are two other fine examples of comedy hybrids (comedy/horror and comedy/action, respectively), and they both worked because Edgar Wright kept delivering beautifully inventive parody and satire, one wickedly creative joke after another. By comparison, Nourizadeh never thinks to parody the modern spy thrillers that have become so in vogue lately, which is a missed opportunity.
That said, a lot of the blame falls on Eisenberg as well. The guy’s a seasoned pro at this point, and it’s obvious that he’s going into this with everything that he’s got. But somehow, stoner humor doesn’t seem to be a card in his deck. There’s something about his neurotic screen presence and comedic timing that isn’t quite compatible with some of the jokes he’s tasked with. Then again, there’s the fact that Mike seems to have a genuine medicinal need for marijuana, and the film never seems to portray him as a stoned-out loser. It’s a sort of nuanced approach that makes for a far more sympathetic main character, but it also precludes most of the lowbrow comedy that stoner humor is built on.
As for Kristen Stewart… eh. If you’re not a fan of hers, this won’t be the movie to convert you (that would be Clouds of Sils Maria). She has some flat moments and there are quite a few scenes that feature some of the bad habits she’s become noticeable for. Basically put, Stewart’s performance rises and falls with the character she’s playing. When Phoebe is together with Mike, their chemistry together is perfectly fine. When Phoebe gets to be a badass, or at least when she’s being proactive in advancing the plot, then Stewart does a solid job of selling the character. But when Phoebe is reduced to a damsel in distress and Stewart doesn’t really have much to do, that’s when we start to get the blank stares and the lip-biting.
The best I can say for her performance is that Stewart did the best she could with what she had. If the role was handed over to someone else — say, Brie Larson or Aubrey Plaza, for instance — I don’t think the film as a whole would’ve been much better for it.
The standout of the cast is easily Topher Grace, who gleefully chews up scenery in such a way that the egomaniacal little toad was so much fun to hate. We’ve also got Walton Goggins as a homicidal lunatic, and what more do I really have to say? Connie Britton also deserves mention, here playing the de facto “straight woman” of the cast. She does a surprisingly good job of playing a sort of mother figure who can more than hold her own as a CIA operative.
But then we have John Leguizamo, who was painfully underutilized here. It was also a shame to see Bill Pullman get so little screen time, but at least his character needed an actor with enough gravitas to make a huge impression instantly. Last but not least is Tony Hale. Though Hale is an expressive comedian, talented enough to sell a lot of his jokes, he was still tasked with playing an inconsistent character who predictably flip-flopped from one side of the conflict to the other as the plot demanded.
This brings us back to the script. Another huge part of why the genre blend doesn’t quite take is because the characters themselves often feel inconsistent. I’ve already mentioned Hale’s character as one example, but Leguizamo plays another character who seems to function more as a convenient plot device. But by far the most prominent case in point is the protagonist himself, as Mike whiplashes back and forth between stone-cold badass and freaked-out idiot without any sort of control. Of course, I realize that this is inherent in the premise, but it’s still a problem.
Then we have the plot holes. One of the film’s greatest strengths is in the way it deals with plot holes head-on, not only by lampshading and explicitly addressing them, but by using those holes as foreshadowing to set up some plot twist down the line. I don’t dare list any examples here, for obvious reasons, but suffice to say that it’s diabolically clever in most cases. Though there are a couple of reveals that fall flat, particularly one at the end involving Bill Pullman’s character. There’s also the plot hole of why the CIA is being uncharacteristically loud. They’re going after Mike with everything from mercenaries to armored cars to motherfucking drone strikes, leaving a trail of dead civilians and attracting national media attention the whole time. And no one ever thinks to provide a decent answer, save only that Yates is just that fucking incompetent.
Though American Ultra is a bold and fascinating little experiment, it is nonetheless a failed one. The film is creative and energetic, the action is entertaining, and the comedy works well at times, but the end result never quite succeeds at being greater than the sum of its parts. It sucks that the project wasn’t handed off to a director who could help find a more consistent tone, but I’m not sure there are many other directors who’d have the guts to try and pull off something like this.
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the film developed a cult following further down the line. In the meantime, I’d advise waiting for a second-run or a rental before giving it a try.