"Why are people trying to stab you?"
Jesse Eisenberg is one of the more interesting actors in Hollywood. Since his first big breakout in 2005's The Squid and the Whale, Eisenberg seemed to be trying to prove that he was more than just the next Michael Cera. Following his second major breakout role five years later in David Fincher's The Social Network, a role which earned him an Oscar nomination, he seems to be taking roles that probe he's not Mark Zuckerberg. It's led him down some interesting roads, almost none of which, sadly, have gotten him anywhere close to proving that he can do more than be good at one very specific thing which is, honestly, playing characters like Zuckerberg. Every time he tries to break himself out of this rut, he ends up in films like 30 Minutes or Less, The Double, and now American Ultra, where he just kind of flounders about, clearly out of his element.
American Ultra feels like the kind of film that James Franco passed on, and so they inexplicably went to Eisenberg. For the record, I don't dislike Eisenberg, I just find him to be an actor that's very good at playing one specific kind of character: Spoiled rich assholes. It's part of the reason why I think his Lex Luthor might just be one of the least offensive things about that upcoming DC debacle. But I digress, here Eisenberg plays Mike, a stoner with crippling social anxiety who's only comfortable when stoned, drawing, or in the company of his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Following two botched marriage proposals to Phoebe, Mike is wasting away at his job at a convenience store when he is paid a visit by Victoria (Connie Britton), his former mentor of whom he has no memory.
Victoria says a series of code words to Mike which unlock his past as a vicious killer for the CIA. Victoria has learned that Yates (Topher Grace), the new guy in charge of a top secret program which Mike was once a part, is seeking to wipe out sleeper agents like Mike, and Victoria decides to set him free instead. It's an interesting premise for a film, but one that doesn't fully gel because it bounces too wildly between genres to ever really find its footing. As a stoner comedy, it's a terrible failure because of its commitment to bloody, realistic, and often unrelenting violence. Nothing kills a buzz faster than a non-stop barrage of violence, and this film's third act is one of the bloodiest and most unnecessary I've seen since Looper, another film that devolved from philosophical science fiction into mindless shoot-em-up.
The film's script was written by Max Landis, who understands the genres in which he's working, but struggles to rectify these tropes with the needs of a Hollywood action film. I would have honestly preferred a film with what I can only imagine to be less studio interference and perhaps a director better versed in the language of comedy than action. The only film I can think of which seamlessly blended stoner comedy and action movie is Pineapple Express, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that the action was often ridiculous. Here, the dedication to Bourne movie levels of neck snapping and creative fatal wound deliveries stops any attempt at comedy in the film's second half almost completely.
Director Nima Nourizadeh, whose only other credit as a director is 2012's found footage film Project X, is fluent in the language of action cinema, but is completely tone deaf to comedy. This ultimately hurts the film because it's clearly attempting to be an action comedy romp rather than an intensely violent action flick, yet it consistently gives off an air of trying desperately to be the latter. Nourizadeh has a keen visual eye for action, but these instincts betray him in the face of this material. It reeks of a project in which the writer, director, and cast were all on different pages, a conflict that ultimately falls to the director to rectify, but no such attempts seem to have been made. We're left with a bit of a schizophrenic film that may have actually been trying to be schizophrenic. If that's the case, it succeeds wildly at attaining a rather boneheaded goal.
The film's cast, while clearly not on the same page as the director, is more or less solid. Eisenberg isn't bad so much as he's miscast, but thankfully he and Stewart have terrific chemistry. In fact, the only two films I've ever enjoyed Stewart in were when she was opposite Eisenberg, so perhaps the two should team up more often. Britton is also very good, but at times appears to actually let it show that she's above the material. John Leguizamo is another case since he isn't miscast so much as either ignoring or receiving zero direction. The only director who has ever effectively used Leguizamo is Baz Luhrmann, and perhaps its time for them to re-team for something.
American Ultra isn't a bad movie so much as its a manic experiment that fails more often than it succeeds. It has some inspired moments, such as a jailbreak early in the second act, but they're few and far between. It isn't quite the spectacular failure that 30 Minutes or Less was, but it's also not as successful at combining comedy and action as Pineapple Express. Sadly it doesn't work as a stoner comedy or an action film, but it does have a shaggy dog quality that's impossible to hate. It's fairly innocuous for such a violent film, which is a pretty odd statement to make, but it's appropriate for such an odd film.
GO Rating: 2.5/5
[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]