Synopsis: A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins, Tony Hale
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.20/10)
Review: It’s hard to know where to start with a movie like American Ultra because the film itself is all over the map and hard to follow. Woe be to the individual that opts to wait in the concession line for that vat of overpriced popcorn and misses the first few minutes of the movie…but then again it doesn’t really matter because there’s precious little to encourage you to carve time out of your late summer movie-going schedule for this half-baked stoner action comedy spy flick.
Screenwriter Max Landis’ last big screen effort was the surprisingly slick Chronicle but he trips here with a mulligan stew of ideas and jokes that never gel into a satisfying meal. I actually can imagine that Landis turned in a worthy, readable, screenplay that just didn’t translate well as it made its way on camera. The central plot of a government agent/experiment suffering from memory loss living life as a stoner mini-mart worker in a dead end West Virginia town called into action when a rogue CIA sector marks him for death doesn’t have the stench of an also-ran and maybe could have worked (whew…I’m winded after that description…let me take a breath). But in the hands of director Nima Nourizadeh it suffers from cinematic inertia and a curious lack of any committed tone…not to mention a whole host of casting problems.
I continue to fail to see the appeal of Jesse Eisenberg (Now You See Me). He seems only able to play one type of role, a mumbly meek milquetoast and while the film attempts to counteract that with the character’s deadly force training it can’t escape the fact that Eisenberg is terribly miscast in a role he seems uncomfortable in and too old for. Put him in a dime-store wig with a part that keeps changing sides at random and a lumpy flannel and the ho-hum make-under is complete.
Lucky for Eisenberg he has a game co-star in Kristen Stewart (Still Alice), rejoining her Adventureland co-star and saving his butt in every scene (again). Stewart feels much more at ease with her role, Eisenberg’s sweet girlfriend that supports his slacker ways and actually loves him in spite of it all. As the film progresses, we see there’s more to Stewart’s character than we originally were led to believe, allowing the actress some good moments to continue to prove she’s able to play more than a moony vampire lover.
As much as I love Connie Britton (This is Where I Leave You) I find that once again she’s used incorrectly as a top CIA operative with ties to the experimental program Eisenberg was once a part of. Not surprising, she’s the third actress signed to the role after Uma Thurman and Sharon Stone dropped out. Britton can play a steel voiced authority figure no problem but in chunky boots and wool ensemble she always feels like she’s pretending to be a CIA agent rather than really embodying the role.
At least Britton fares better than Topher Grace (Interstellar) who has managed to remain ageless over the years, even though his eyes are seeming to bug out more than ever. The worst example of miscasting, Grace parades around as a snobby CIA agent that opposes Britton wearing twice as much rouge as her and not looking remotely aware of it. Every line reading rings false and he acts without conviction or motivation in a series of scenes that look like deleted skits from the MTV Movie Awards.
In fact, from the astoundingly cheap looking sets, the overall appearance of the movie feels like a late night talk show sketch that runs too long. The lighting is either brilliantly bold (as in a black-light set action sequence where Stewart and Eisenberg’s teeth glow as bright as the whites of their eyes) or murky and flat. Several action scenes look like they were culled from the 11th or 12th take based on the exhausted look of the actors and worst of all the film has nothing really solid to say when it reaches its conclusion. An animated sequence over the end credits is perhaps the most creative thing about the film…but that too is spoiled by an obnoxious score that sonically seems meant to induce dry heaves.
Amidst bloody violence there are some all too brief flashes of what the film could have been, a subversively smart action thriller with a dark comedy slant…but that would have required more effort from the director not to mention a major cast overhaul.