American Ultra is the kind of movie that makes you re-consider going back to the theater at all, or at least for a little while. A ludicrous and insulting misfire that inspires wonder of how people of any talent level at all could become involved with it to begin with. It’s not that encountering this kind of film is particularly surprising in the dull-drums of mid August and early September, where studios will often dump their lamest material in an attempt to stall until Oscar season. The surprising part is exactly how cringe inducingly unpleasant this stoner “comedy” turned out to be. Perhaps it’s my fault for even trying to see a movie right now at all. I should know better.
We open inside a sleepy little town with young stoner couple Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) lovingly wasting their lives away. Mike, who suffers from anxiety so extreme that he cannot even leave town, is struggling to find the right moment to propose to Phoebe before she wises up and leaves him. However, those plans find themselves in need of further hold when Mike finds himself in grave danger. After hearing a mysterious group of code words from a mysterious woman named Victoria (Connie Britton) at the convenience store he works at, Mike finds himself being hunted by assassins, and to his utter shock, he is able to fight back to brutally fatal effect. It turns out that the young low-life is actually a government asset of some sort. Yuppie CIA agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) will stop at nothing to eliminate Mike, while Victoria will do the same to protect him.
This is a movie that wants to be a bunch different things over the course of its brief ninety minutes. Thrown into this rusty old blender we have stoner adventure, romantic comedy, spy thriller, and mental illness drama. That’s right. For as much as the marketing behind American Ultra would like to fool people into thinking that it’s just a slightly more hot and heavy version of Pineapple Express, the movie reveals itself to be a fairly depressing portrait of just how insane anxiety can drive a person. There aren’t even many attempts at jokes for the first twenty minutes or so. It’s just a simple and sad story about a guy who has his girlfriend trapped in a rut as she tries to accept it. While one might think this strange tone would make the spy elements seem welcome when they do arrive, it’s actually quite the opposite. All of the action/comedy elements here are so absurd and cartoonish, it seems like they warped in from a different movie entirely. What Chronicle scribe Max Landis’ screenplay ultimately becomes is an exercise akin to having two completely different films on at the exact same time, with the loud action movie constantly screeching over the quiet drama.
The movie’s one shining asset is Jesse Eisenberg. Fresh off of one of his very best performances in The End Of The Tour, our new Lex Luthor swerves into yet another gear to show us further depths to his talent. While he’s certainly portrayed anxious characters before, it’s never gone as far as it has here, and Eisenberg makes each word out of his mouth seem more painful for Mike to utter than the last. In fact, one of the reasons the film is so constantly depressing is because Eisenberg sells it so well, making his great performance something of a double edged sword. Meanwhile, the other performers simply aren’t up to snuff. While Stewart has certainly enjoyed some lovably off kilter chemistry with Eisenberg in Adventureland, their previous collaboration, it seems a bit more forced here. It’s certainly not completely gone, but just never fully materializes. Certainly not helping matters is a second act twist involving her character that is so insulting that it’s nearly ‘walk out’ worthy, which she does not sell at all. Manning the CIA, Grace makes for a generic and rather annoying villain with next to nothing written to fuel him other than pure snobbery, and Britton’s character is so generic she sometimes seems completely invisible on screen.
I wouldn’t exactly peg the director of Project X as a future action director, and it turns out that Nima Nourizadeh has in fact found himself greatly out of his depth. What we have here is a Scott Pilgrim esque senario, with an actor who cannot do his own action sequences needing to partake in some fairly exaggerated and brutal fight scenes. While someone of Edgar Wright’s talent can certainly make that work, Nourizadeh falls completely apart. So much of the combat here is just shaky cam silliness, with a few drops of blood to remind us just how brutal what we’re watching is. It feels so fake, that they might as well just pause the action to let Eisenberg’s stunt double walk into position. Even when the direction improves a tad in the film’s final battle in a hardware store, the sequence is so derivative of last year’s ‘The Equalizer’ that it remains just as laughable.
For every second of it’s run-time, American Ultra is simply hard to watch. A hodgepodge of different elements that could have perhaps worked with a bit of style, but are instead brought to the screen as limply as possible. While Eisenberg’s performance does provide the slightest hook to latch onto, by the time the credits roll that hook will have snapped off the wall. I wager the only reason that this is even in theaters at all is because of the talent involved, and the need to have something to dump into this horrible time to be a film fan. Don’t find yourself burning at the end of this dud blunt.