At first when I started watching this movie, I wasn’t quite sure whether the awkward lines, strange characters and uncertain emotions were intentional or not, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt by paying as much attention as I could. About half an hour in as I sat jaw-dropped, my suspicions now confirmed, I could only wince at the one hour I still had for American Ultra to end. There is always a good and bad way to go about making a movie – whether it’s a stoner movie or a sleeper agent movie – and this latest comedy-action-spy-thriller hybrid makes an earnest attempt at both, but fails miserably on both counts. A pretty simple plot fleshed out with a script and characters as shaky as the camera employed, American Ultra defies the least of expectations and reveals itself to be as stoned as its main character for the entire runtime.
American Ultra is the story of Mike Howell, a perpetually stoned Cash n Carry store clerk who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe in the small town of Liman, and sketches during his free time. Oh, but he is so much more, as he finds out unexpectedly: when a mysterious lady mumbles a bunch of seeming gibberish and two guys turn up with a knife at his store, he realizes he has the skills of Jason Bourne, taking both guys out armed with nothing but a spoon. What he doesn’t realize – perhaps the Bourne films don’t exist in this universe – is that he is basically Jason Bourne, with the exception that the stunts he’s capable of place him more in the category of superhuman than superspy. When he gets caught by the police and targeted by the CIA, Mike and Phoebe are swept into an excruciating hunt where the only things keeping them alive are his insane skills with kitchen utensils and the constantly whining incompetence of the agent Yates. Somewhere in the middle of all of this lies a tale of romance, self-realization and all-too obvious clichés.
What comes to mind immediately on watching this film is the potential that the plot carries: a comedic twist on the Jason Bourne plot should be a definite win, right? It’s not that the cast members individually aren’t great choices either (with the exception of Topher Grace, who seems to embody this same exception in most productions he is in), but somehow all of it just fails to add up. From the relationship between Mike and Phoebe to the operation of the entire CIA, something is constantly off, and off in such a strange way that it keeps its audience questioning whether what is intended is failed satire or just a really bad spoof. ‘Audacious’ is a word that I feel almost compelled to throw in: not in praise of some unfettered genius, but pure gall. There are just too many mistakes in American Ultra for it to have been actually intended by the creators, and for their sake I hope they did not intend it; for it is at the end of the day an extremely messy piece of cinema. Trying to capture the awkward and insanely silly comedy that seems to dominate most films Michael Cera is a part of, Nima Nourizadeh’s attempt with Jesse Eisenberg comes off as nothing but irritating.
There is definitely no doubt that the filmmakers and everyone in the film poured their efforts into making this film something that it isn’t, and the evidence is everywhere to prove it. There are admittedly times when the awkward stoner humour works well, but those moments stay for about the quarter of a second, lasting just about long enough for Jack Sparrow to wave as they pass by. Most of this problem is traced to the screenplay, which seems unsure of itself at best and amateur at worst. While I appreciated the scriptwriter Max Landis’ work on Chronicle and was entertained by his participation in the YouTube show Movie Fights (run by the channel ‘Screen Junkies’), neither is excuse for the less than engaging lines of dialogue at play in American Chronicle. The awkwardness and stumbling-around of the plot and characters are so reflective of its delirious main characters that the otherwise rich cinematography and soundtrack slip by unnoticed. The atmosphere attempted in American Ultra is a hybrid – again, just as the genre this film falls into – of the director’s own Project X and Judd Apatow’s, with a dash of small town closeness in the visuals. This is the only facet where I believe the film succeeded at least to an extent: the visuals produced are so vibrant and interesting that it makes one feel sorry for the film it had to accompany.
For a cast capable of so much more – particularly proven in the comedy genre – as Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Walton Goggins, every second of this film with character uttering words of any sort was simply painful to listen to. The narrow exception was perhaps the lines between Eisenberg’s Mike and Stewart’s Phoebe in the second half of the film: resurrecting whatever chemistry was possible from the lifelessness of the first act. However, among any of these, the character whose lines were the least thought-out and whose antics were most cringe-inducing to watch was that of agent Yates as played by Topher Grace. Never truly having grown out of the frail and wimpy boy character he played in That 70s Show (a personal guilty pleasure for me), Grace’s Yates leaves the listener clueless after every line whether the intention was comedy or simply to show the silly incompetence of his character. I am not one to rant in my reviews, but his performance in this film was the most out of place and jarring: an astounding comment, considering the movie it is in and yet every bit as true. From the very first scene where he is dragged out of the CIA panel room (where he should have stayed for the rest of the film, in my opinion), it is obvious that he isn’t putting the minimum effort into his role, replacing it instead with blooper-like mannerisms and animated movements of his face muscles. What simply eludes me is why the filmmakers decided to go with such a character to have front-and-centre for a majority of the runtime, having actors such as Bill Pullman in the cast as it did.
While I did admit that the cinematography and visuals of the film were quite enticing, perhaps its seeming inclinations toward Adventureland misleading many into higher expectations, the action sequences are another matter altogether. While it is mild to say that almost all the kills or incapacitations caused by Mike defy all logic – from his bursting someone’s lungs with a spoon and slicing another’s throat with a pan – it is still the shakiness of the footage that overshadows the rest. Agreed, it is a fast paced movie and if the idea was to allow the audience to see the way Mike was seeing his skills at work, it sure isn’t pleasing to watch. Especially when the film is clearly going for more graphic action with the splattering blood, I feel it could have gone a long way if smoother camerawork were at play. That said, the film is edited quite well, and does not linger too long where it shouldn’t, and for that I give a tip of the hat, as I can see, with better writing the film wouldn’t be boring at all.
American Ultra is a film for which expectations didn’t run higher than a fun, stoner comedy, but not only does it fail to meet them, but it manages to irritate in the process. I think the film embodies its protagonist too much, with dialogue that one might hear from a real stoner, and that level of realism does not gel well with the rest of it. If you’re going for an over-realistic characterization on script, it should be well noted that the movie it fits into carries that realism as well. When your movie is basically the opposite of that, with CIA conspiracies and a character with the skill-set of Batman, maybe the better route to take is embrace the hilarity with an animated script. At the end of the day, American Ultra was nothing short of disappointment for me, and while I do hope there are people who can sit through this film and enjoy it, I highly doubt their numbers.