Review: Stoner Comedy 'American Ultra' is Semi-Cool Entertainment
by Jeremy Kirk
August 21, 2015
American Ultra is a cool, stoner action/comedy with a healthy serving of heart, a prime candidate in 2015 for coolest kid on the block. However, the film is never quite as cool as it, or the filmmakers behind it, wants to be. There's plenty of action. There's an abundance of stoner-related comedy. All the parts that make up a rousing success for hip cinema are present, but the results, the endgame American Ultra offers up, is somewhat less-than. A highly enjoyable time at the movies to be fair, it never quite transcends that category to be something ultimately memorable. Instead, we have to make due with the surface-level entertainment the film delivers in droves, an ultra fun, movie-going experience that feels like it could have been more.
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart star as the stoner couple, Mike and Phoebe, at the heart of the story in this movie. They spend their days getting high, chillaxing in front of the TV, and half-assing it in the jobs they hold in their small, West Virginia town. All would be right if Phoebe could get Mike over his crippling fear of leaving town - ideally to somewhere sunnier like Hawaii - and Mike could find the perfect moment to pull out the engagement ring he's bought for his girlfriend.
It all gets put on hold, though, when Mike becomes the target of a covert, central intelligence operation that finds him being hunted by assassins and CIA operatives alike. He soon learns that he was once a deep-cover operate, his memory of this fact as well as any childhood memories he might have locked somewhere in the hazy depths of his sativa-soaked brain. Maybe they're smoking indica. Regardless, the shit is about to hit the fan, and, thankfully, Mike's skills as a highly trained field agent are beginning to click in again.
Written by Chronicle screenwriter Max Landis, American Ultra is the ultimate what if for anyone who's ever sat on their couch watching cartoons while baked out of their mind. What would I do if skilled assassins broke in and tried to take me out right now? What everyday, household instruments could I use to defend myself? Landis delivers just as many creative ways to kill someone in this screenplay as he does ways of showing the stunted mental capacity of his protagonists.
Both comedy and action serve the film well overall, but American Ultra seems to hit its peak early - It's probably about the time Mike takes someone out with a spoon - and never rises past it. Director Nima Nourizadeh packs his film with wall-to-wall, visual entertainment, the pace of his film hardly ever letting up over the course of its 95-minute runtime.
Nonstop action and comedy aside, American Ultra never fulfills itself as a complete package, the sum of its parts rarely getting past the stoner comedy elements of it all. Landis' screenplay has all the twists, turns, and red herrings you would want from a CIA spy actioner such as this, but, alas, the execution at work in American Ultra keeps the impact of its script at a certain, mid-level state. It's the kind of end result that keeps you holding your breath for the next Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg joint instead.
One aspect where American Ultra absolutely succeeds is in the cast Nourizadeh has culled together, particularly with Eisenberg and Stewart. The stoner-couple roles they fill are realistic, grounded characters who provide American Ultra with genuine drama and conflict way before the lethal assassins even show up, and the lead actors become a genuine strength that drives their respective character. Eisenberg pulls off a tremendous amount of range, particularly when you consider he's playing the typical, Jesse Eisenberg role in the first part of the film. It isn't long before he, and Stewart for that matter, makes you a believer in his part of the wall-to-wall action that comes soon after.
Unfortunately, Stewart gets dropped into the damsel-in-distress role before it's all said and done. It's an obvious turn - much more obvious than the "twist" Landis puts on her character earlier in the film - and one that would be more scathing if it weren't for the supporting players putting her in that position. Topher Grace fills the obligatory role of the agency suit who decides it's time to take Mike out, Walton Goggins appearing as his number one assassin, a psychopath who goes by the moniker Laugher for obvious reasons. Connie Britton and Bill Pullman also make give memorable performances as CIA agents, but, again, it's few and far between when something or someone truly shines here.
American Ultra is a film that seems to rest on the laurels of the stoner comedies that came before it. Fans of this particular sub-genre are sure to find varying degrees of success in the humor here, the incessant action obtaining a slightly higher victory when it's all said and done. An epilogue Landis and Nourizadeh tack onto the end of their story tells us there is certainly room for more in the "two stoners on an adventure" dynamic they've set up here. If there is more to this world than what is offered in American Ultra, we know it will achieve at least a semi-cool level of amusement, but we'll definitely be hoping for something a bit more.