I’m about to give a positive review to one of the dumbest movies ever. So get the fuck ready folks.
As a guy who’s been publicly reviewing movies for close to a year now, I’m acutely aware that your opinion of me as a critic constantly rests on the edge of a knife. Each review I write threatens to unalterably change your thoughts on my ability to analyze and critique the films I watch. If the whole point here is to tell you which movies I think you should and shouldn’t see, I live and die on your ability to take my opinions seriously. So when I say that I really enjoyed America Ultra, I know it threatens to bring down this whole house of cards. But you know what…I don’t actually make any money doing this, so fuck it. American Ultra is pretty good.
The movie is a result of taking Pineapple Express, removing most (but not all) of the funny parts and smashing it together with Jason Borne. Part stoner comedy and part government assassin flick, American Ultra shouldn’t work on paper. And it largely doesn’t. This is the story of stoner slacker Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) who one evening finds himself confronted by two government agents in a convenience store parking lot. After he is attacked, something in Mike is triggered and he viciously kills the two men with ramen noodles and a spoon. The remainder of a movie is about Mike and his girlfriend Pheobe (Kristen Stewart) as they flee from the government men trying to kill them while trying to figure out who or what Mike is.
The script by Max Landis (who also penned the critically and me acclaimed Chronicle) is painfully standard and predictable. If you’ve seen any of the trailers you’ll be able to guess exactly what happens during the 96 minute run time. The only real “twist” in the film is just as predictable. The comedy is good but surprisingly sparse. American Ultra was billed as a stoner comedy, but our main characters are very rarely actually stoned. Mike spends most of the movie confused and disoriented, but it has very little to do with weed.
The film is directed by Nima Nourizadeh, whose only other feature length credit on IMDB is for the ‘found footage’ party film, Project X, a film which redefines the overused phrase “problematic”. Nourizadeh’s direction here isn’t bad, but like the script, it’s standard. There isn’t a lot of flourish to his style. Between this and Project X, I’m not even sure what his ‘style’ is. The action scenes, of which the film has quite a few, are cleanly shot. This isn’t shaky cam can’t-tell-what’s-going-on action. But honestly, the film isn’t really shot as an action movie. Nor is it shot as a comedy. Nourizadeh directs American Ultra as if it were a romance and that’s because it really kind of is.
Like I said above, nothing about this movie should work on paper, but yet somehow it does. And that’s because at the center of it all is Mike and Pheobe’s relationship and the honest, wonderful performances of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.
The smartest thing the movie does is give us plenty of time with Mike and Phoebe before things start to get nuts. We get to see multiple facets of their relationship as a couple of very standard days unfold. The two have their problems, as any relationship would. Mike is not mentally well, suffering from nervous breakdowns every time he attempts to leave town, which makes him feel like he’s holding Phoebe back, preventing her from realizing her true potential. It’s such a real relationship, and it anchors us in the story. As crazy things begin to happen around them, the one constant is always Mike and Phoebe.
Jesse Eisenberg is playing the usual bumbling slacker type we’ve seen him do many times before (Zombieland, Adventureland, 30 Minutes Or Less….land). It works fine here like it has in the past, but the real star here is Kristen Stewart. I’ve always felt that Stewart was a better actress than she got credit for. Most of the complaints around her center on her performance in Twilight, which isn’t fair. Stewart is actually a very talented actress, and her work here saves the movie. Phoebe loves Mike. She loves his bumbling slacker attitude. She loves the stupid cartoons apes he draws. She loves his unflinching kindness. Even as he starts unexpectedly killing people, throwing both of them into constant danger. Even as he becomes more and more unhinged, she never wavers. I didn’t care that the script was predictable, the story bland, the action average, and the comedy sparse, because I just wanted these two kids to make it in the end. American Ultra isn’t the story of a former government agent dealing with the revelation of his haunting past. Rather, it’s the story of two young people in love, dealing with their differences and insecurities; finding a way to make it work with each other despite everything they’re forced to go through.
I didn’t expect to like American Ultra and I’m still not sure exactly how much I would recommend you see it. While it’s certainly not a good comedy, or even a good action film, American Ultra is a surprisingly good romance story. Completely writing this one off would be a mistake.