The post-summer blockbuster/pre-Oscar bait movie slate is a heavily plotted pile of garbage the studios have identified as such and spare parts they don’t know how to sell. (Honestly, if you do make it out to the theater now you’re probably there for the air conditioning.) Perhaps no movie this year better embodies the neither-fish-nor-fowl vibe of the August cineplex than American Ultra, director Nima Nourizadeh’s new movie starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. It’s Jason Bourne by way of Cheech and Chong. That sounds cool, but you’d have to be really, really stoned to like it.
Which is not to say it’s terrible. Rather, it’s so scatterbrained that it doesn’t deliver on its promise either as a stoner comedy or as an action flick.
Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, a convenience store clerk and aspiring comic book artist wasting his days in a small West Virginia town with his beloved girlfriend, Phoebe, played by Stewart. They love each other profusely, and their smaller moments together are the heart of the movie. Their chemistry onscreen gives a surprising sincerity to a plot otherwise more interested in blowing shit up and launching endless THC-laced rants. Mike plans to propose to Phoebe on a big Hawaiian vacation, but one of his devastating panic attacks make them miss their flight. It also cues the C.I.A. that their top secret asset is trying to go off the grid.
Yep, unbeknownst to schlubby Mike, he’s the country’s most deadly sleeper agent — deprogrammed, brain-wiped, and sent to Nowheresville U.S.A. to live out his lame life in hazy peace. His desire to get out spooks the spooks, so an upstart agent named Yates (played by everybody’s favorite asshole, Topher Grace) takes it upon himself to plan and execute a secret op to eliminate Mike. A maternal former handler (played by Connie Britton) reactivates Mike just as Yates and his brainwashed goons drop in to ruin his day: Cue the hilarious action. Except not.
You’ll only have to look at the bland, basically meaningless marketing for the movie to see that it has an identity problem. It doesn’t really know how to sell itself because of its weirdness, and thus commits the cardinal sin of ends never committing to the comedy or the action. Give the movie points for trying to be unique in the summer dog-days, but immediately take away those points for not knowing how to pull together a cohesive storyline to connect its genres.
Blame this, partly, on Max Landis’ script. This supposed stoner comedy is surprisingly light on the drugs, save for Phoebe and Mike casually smoking weed and getting into the types of typically faded discussions you get into when you inhale. It’s also dismayingly light on comedy, with nearly every joke relying on Eisenberg to go into full commando mode, brutally murder the assassins sent to kill him, and then look quizzically into a camera. I half expected him to go Full Urkel: “Did I do that?”
The characters say “like” all the time, they swear a lot, and they’re outfitted like a Hollywood stereotype of a pothead would dress (drug rugs, scraggly hair, baggy JNCO-like jeans), but generally lacking from the movie is any real sense of them being absolute deadbeat stoners. Instead they’re just semi-deadbeats with moderate ambition. This may be minor, but it undercuts the whole premise. Mike’s generally content with himself being a normal 20-something who occasionally gets high, rather than a Seth Rogenesque pothead extraordinaire. His turn to a secret killer spy doesn’t seem such a dramatic or funny transformation. This half-measure might yet be salvageable if the action weren’t such a dud.
The action in American Ultra simply makes it an unpleasant movie to watch, not for its subject matter, its shockingly gruesome gore, or its iPhone-video quality, but because director Nourizadeh doesn’t know how to sell its cartoonish hero moments. The movie’s basic gag is seeing spindly, unassuming Eisenberg totally wasting dudes hand-to-hand. Yet every fight sequence cheats the audience with trick cuts, obvious stuntmen, and disorienting close-ups. If Nourizadeh would’ve given Eisenberg more time to perfect his obviously limited fight training, then maybe? But this is a visual jumble.
It’s enough to make you long for the kinetic genre ballets of Edgar Wright, a director who can pull off insane action while selling hilarious character moments, as in Hot Fuzz or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. In fact, American Ultra’s plot switcheroo (and a digitally strung together single-shot fight) recalls Wright’s infinitely better The World’s End. That movie managed to say something about its loser protagonist while throwing in some awesome sequences to boot. It not only made Simon Pegg into a badass, it managed to make Nick Frost into one too.
American Ultra fails even as it aims low. This week you could certainly do worse at the cinema, but the unexpected chemistry between the two leads isn’t enough to make this schizophrenic and ultimately haphazard movie worth it. What a bummer, man.