|Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in American Ultra. (Photo: Alan Markfield/AP/Lionsgate)|
In American Ultra, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart star as Mike and Phoebe: two West Virginian stoners with dead-end jobs and a happy, if troubled, relationship. Mike’s panic attacks prevent them from going on vacation, and his absent-mindedness ensures he almost burns down their house every time he tries to cook. Phoebe has a lot on her plate in taking care of him, but she soon has much more when a CIA operative named Lasseter (Connie Britton) reveals that Mike is a sleeper agent whose deadly skills at hand-to-hand combat have been locked inside his mind, lying dormant. His (mostly) blissful life is a sham, and CIA honcho Yates (Topher Grace) has targeted him for elimination. Stoner laughs and blockbuster action (supposedly) ensue, in the tradition of films like Pineapple Express (2008).
Ultra is marketed as a stoner comedy on steroids, but plays more like an action thriller with the occasional sarcastic quip thrown in. The comedy elements fall flat more often than not (Mike sputtering to Phoebe that “I spooned that guy in the neck and his shit… just ended,” is meant to elicit a laugh, but the words sound false coming from Eisenberg’s mouth, and his monotone delivery doesn’t help.) Frankly, I think it would have been a better setup if Mike had been a deadly CIA asset who would rather get stoned and be with his girlfriend than kill people, instead of the overdone Bourne-lite concept of “spy agent is ‘activated’ and must reconcile his true identity with the life he wants,” yadda yadda. That concept wouldn’t make it as easy to stay three steps ahead of the story, though, which is something Ultra does seemingly without thinking. By the time Lasseter visits Mike’s convenience store and activates him by whispering a series of code phrases, the film has already told us that he is a CIA asset whose mind has been wiped. The scene would have played with a whole lot more interest if we didn’t already know that stuff, and Lasseter’s strange mumbled codespeak was the first signs of a mystery that the film would unravel. But there is hardly a scene in this film where the outcome hasn’t been clearly telegraphed by the time you arrive there.
Topher Grace (as well as Tony Hale as a CIA agent with shifting loyalties) is immensely enjoyable to watch, but the dialogue Grace is given, mostly consisting of sexist slurs spat at Connie Britton, is just plain ugly to listen to. Ultra portrays the CIA more like the mob than a government body (it’s apparently an organization which allows one of its senior members to take his subordinates out into the woods and shoot them point-blank for failing their mission. Am I watching a stoner comedy, or Miller’s Crossing? I just don’t get it). The violence feels needlessly excessive too, which is another part of the film’s confused tone. It’s possible to make awkward tonal shifts deliberately and have that work to your advantage – James Gunn’s Super (2010) would be a similar example that moves with purpose from slapstick to gruesome – but Ultra fumbles it, making the enthusiastically gory fight sequences seem wholly out of place. When one begins, it feels like you’re suddenly watching a different movie (and one in which Jesse Eisenberg is an action star, which is just awful no matter how you slice it; even the similarly-stiff Michael Cera managed to move with poise and intent in Scott Pilgrim vs The World, but Eisenberg simply can’t sell his character’s martial arts expertise).
|John Leguizamo and Jesse Eisenberg in American Ultra. (Photo: Alan Markfield/AP/Lionsgate)|
Which brings me to the film’s fatal flaw: Jesse Eisenberg is terribly, woefully miscast. He works as any variation on his Mark Zuckerberg character – nervous, terse, socially robotic, aloof, arrogant – but is the wrong choice to play both a likeable stoner and a badass killing machine. The screenplay’s quippy dialogue, with its pretentious quasi-hipster stench reminiscent of Diablo Cody’s Juno, is a total mismatch with his flat, unmodulated voice. Surprisingly, in casting about for something of interest to latch onto, I found Kristen Stewart to be the film’s saving grace. Phoebe had all the emotion, purpose, and intent that Mike didn’t, and was able to make me believe that she genuinely loved him, when the movie itself didn’t show me a single real reason for that infatuation. They’re meant to read as co-dependent fuck-ups, but she really comes across as the one deserving of a better relationship who chooses Mike anyway, and I liked her character more for that reason. I was also surprised to find that Stewart is a much better actor in general than Eisenberg, who I knew to be limited, but thanks to his involvement in bigger and more important films, I had unconsciously ascribed more talent to him than he deserves. I made a mistake in judging Stewart by Twilight; and though she’s working with stunted material here too, I won’t make that mistake again.
An acknowledgement should also be made to screenwriter Max Landis’ recent comments on Twitter, posted as a reaction to Ultra’s poor critical and box-office reception. In short, Landis bemoaned the summer’s box office successes and wondered if audiences simply didn’t like original ideas anymore. This, in his estimation, is the only reason that his film fared worse than the critically-panned Hitman: Agent 47 and Sinister 2 – he believed it to be well-marketed, with great leads, fresh ideas, and high quality filmmaking. It must be said that despite Landis’ belief in his own film, which is perfectly understandable, he’s patently wrong on all counts: it is nearly impossible for a film titled “American Ultra”, which stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, to be well-marketed. Which demographic counts these actors as box office draws? What information does the title give you? There’s no way for the moviegoing public to know what they’re in for, and little reason for them to choose this film over any others. Last year’s crop of original films, including Boyhood, Birdman, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, are living proof that original ideas are still gladly accepted by both critics and general audiences alike. Landis’ reaction to his film’s poor reception is pure petulance, and should be considered as such.
There are elements to Ultra that I genuinely liked: Stewart’s performance, the supporting cast (including a ridiculously flamboyant John Leguizamo), and the suggestion that the relationship between two stoners is more interesting than a CIA cover-up plot. I found myself wanting to be invested in the cute little stoner love story being attempted, but Ultra kept pushing back with its wonky dialogue and horribly miscast lead. The film presents ideas that, in steadier hands and with properly-cast characters, might actually be delightful to watch (the mind boggles at what someone like Edgar Wright would have been able to do with the material). Unfortunately it stalls in execution, when it doesn’t outright alienate with its uneven tone. It took me a few days to realize that my good feelings about the film when I left the theatre were the result of my giving the film credit for trying things that it often doesn’t pull off. Ultra gets an A for effort, I suppose.
– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.