Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo
Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language Throughout, Drug Use and Some Sexual Content
"American Ultra" wants to be a stoner action-comedy parody; a movie that combines the mentality of a Seth Rogen movie with something like "The Long Kiss Goodnight," playing up both with its tongue-in-cheek. If that sounds complicated, it is. But it can be done; the "Kick-Ass" movies did the same thing for the superhero genre. Sadly, the results are much less satisfactory here.
Mike (Eisenberg) is a stoner living in Liman, South Carolina with his girlfriend/landlord Phoebe (Stewart). Mike wants to propose to Phoebe, and has a whole romantic getaway to Hawaii planned out. Unfortunately, his neuroses get the better of him and they have to cancel the trip. But Mike isn't the ordinary pothead grocery store clerk that he thinks he is. He's a covert CIA operative, albeit an inactive one. But his aborted attempt to leave the state has convinced a CIA suit named Yates (Grace) that he's a liability, so Yates orders him to be taken out. But Lasseter (Britton), the creator of the program he was turned under, wants to save him, she she goes to Liman and activates him. Now the sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere is going to join St. Louis as one of the most dangerous cities in America.
Stoners are funny because they're stupid and slow. A guy, or girl, who is too baked to react to normal life is funny. However, that contrasts with the action genre which is ideally fast-moving and energetic. It would take a talented and visionary director to meld the two, but unfortunately Nima Nourizadeh isn't it. The action aspects are fine, if derivative, but the comedy is DOA. It's not that the don't work (although they don't), it's that they aren't there.
Part of the problem is making Mike neurotic, something that Eisenberg is famous for. In general, people aren't worrywarts when they are high on pot. They're the opposite. It creates a disconnect. Wouldn't it have been funnier if Mike had accepted the fact that he's a secret agent with skills rivaling James Bond, or thought it was wicked cool? Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to take the safe road, which not only robs the film of any sort of edge, but makes the narrative entirely predictable. The film also doesn't successfully meld the two aspects of Mike's character: he's a neurotic stoner unless he's in danger, at which time he turns into super spy.
At least the acting is effective. Jesse Eisenberg gives it a game try, and while there are times when he's effective, someone else could have done it better. Kristen Stewart, free from the cheesiness that defined the "Twilight" movies, is quite good. They're credible stoners, but they're not given anything interesting to say. Baked people usually have crazy and nonsensical ideas, which are often funny, but here, there's no edge to it. It's just bland. Topher Grace makes for a good borderline psycho. Yates is an arrogant douchebag, who thinks the end justifies the means, even if the end is relatively harmless and the means are over-the-top. Connie Britton does her best not to get lost among the special effects and her higher-wattage co-stars, but it's a losing battle. Veteran nutcase Walton Goggins and John Leguizamo provide support as a lunatic assassin and Mike's dealer. Bill Pullman's appearance only amounts to a cameo (not including a pointless wrap-around).
"American Ultra" is not only a movie that makes every mistake possible (bad pacing, lame jokes, tired plotting, etc.), but highlights all of the interesting things it could have done. Bad move, bro.