American Ultra (Nima Nourizadeh, 2015)
Let’s smoke some weed and kick some arse! That’s not quite so much the premise of American Ultra, but more likely something the filmmakers said as they conceived it. Having already demonstrated his love of excess in his debut feature Project X, director Nima Nourizadeh teams up with screenwriter Max Landis to deliver yet another over the top comedy.
Jesse Eisenberg is Mike, a stoner who considers himself a loser in all areas but love. Kristin Stewart plays girlfriend, Phoebe, a fellow pot smoker who supports him through his panic attacks and self-loathing. Together they live a simple life in West Virginia, until CIA wanker Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) decides to dick things up and call for Mike’s assassination. But it turns out Mike is actually a killing machine who won’t go down without a fight. The CIA are involved, something something, the filmmakers were probably stoned when they came up with this so let’s not get bogged down in a messy plot.
To its credit, American Ultra is never boring, and Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart make a likeable pair. Not afraid to bloody it up, Stewart makes a mediocre role decent, while Eisenberg goes beyond his usual neurotic schtick to take some mofos down with his newly discovered lightning fast reflexes. There’s a fair amount of violence, and plenty of people get killed in the name of a CIA operation that doesn’t make much sense. Screenwriter Max Landis seemingly thought this would make for a fun screenplay, but then again this is a guy who brags about his drug use on Twitter and complains about the poor reception of his film.
The poor reception is no doubt a result of bad marketing, as while the film is advertised as a stoner comedy, the pot smoking aspect is almost irrelevant. The film seems to have made the misstep in narrowing its potential audience to those wanting a Seth Rogen style dopefest, and then not giving them what they’re after. It’s arguably a better film for it, but it doesn’t match viewer expectations.
While it provokes a few titters, American Ultra is unfortunately devoid of laugh-out-loud moments, perhaps because Mike just doesn’t seem stoned enough. He makes many stupid decisions, but laughing at him feels wrong when he’s such a hopeless case with no sense of self-worth. In one of the few scenes where he is significantly stoned, he compares himself and Phoebe to a tree and a car. It was unclear whether this was meant to be funny, or whether it was a real conversation one of the filmmakers had while stoned which they thought was just so deep, man. That this was ambiguous does not bode well.
If you enjoy watching people getting stabbed in the neck with a spoon while a stoner wonders what the hell is going on, American Ultra might float your boat. But if you’re after the kind of magical trip that is offered up by the likes of Seth Rogen and James Franco, you’d best look elsewhere for your fix.
This review was first published at Film Blerg.