American Ultra's screenwriter Max Landis recently went on a social media rant explaining why this film was a box office failure. He blamed the general moviegoing audience for only paying to see franchises and sequels. He lamented the fact that only big-name directors such as Tarantino and Nolan can release truly original films and still make large amounts of money. And finally, he stated, "Go see American Ultra, it's really good."
Landis' first two points are rooted in fact. It's his third that's off track.
American Ultra is by no means a terrible movie. It's also not really good. It floats somewhere in between the two levels of quality, never dipping into the painfully bad or rising to recommendable fun. It has been marketed as a crossover between a stoner comedy and a secret agent action thriller, but never feels like enough of either genre. It's less than the sum of its inspired parts, as it settles into a middling mediocrity that leaves behind a mostly forgettable experience.
Not every facet of American Ultra is a waste of time. The initial concept is certainly entertaining: one of the American government's secret sleeper agents is activated and subsequently hunted- except he's a bewildered stoner who is joined on the run for answers by his headstrong stoner girlfriend. That summary covers all of the film's finest facets, as the concept alone inherently leads to watchable fun, and its two stars give some of their best performances to date. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have undeniable chemistry (which they've previously displayed in the wonderful Adventureland), but their individual work here serves to overcome the respective stereotypes surrounding their acting careers. Jesse Eisenberg is often criticized for taking on roles that are consistently too similar to each other- "Jesse Eisenberg only ever plays Jesse Eisenberg"- but his role in American Ultra is the least Jesse Eisenberg that I've ever seen him, and he tackles it impressively. He convincingly comes across as both always paranoid and capable of action stardom, which is no small feat. Kristen Stewart has spent her post-Twilight years casting off her stereotype as an emotionless bore of an actress to great success- anyone paying attention to her indie film career as of late would not be surprised to discover that she's a great actress- but her commitment to her role in this film is especially stunning. She's funny, she's heartfelt, and she's a force to be reckoned with.
Those descriptions should fit a film such as American Ultra, but aside from its original concept and lead performances, most everything falls flat. Landis' screenplay is an obvious culprit. Some choices feel as if they were supposed to be inspired but just come off as odd: the opening montage gives away all of the movie's major setpieces (and thus strips them of any tension later on), and the conversations between government agents are given a "comedic" bent that just comes off as distractingly silly. Character development is almost completely ignored- the script bounces around the theme of Eisenberg's character not tapping into his full potential in life (admittedly, a stoner/sleeper agent is a pretty brilliant allegory for this theme), but it is repeatedly shelved to showcase the underwhelming comedy and action.
Topher Grace appears to be outright uncomfortable in the role of a ruthless government agent. Try as he might (and he does), he just cannot pull off menace, and it's saddening to watch. The film's editing is awkwardly stilted as well. A great number of shots linger for a second or two longer than they should and kill any mood present in the scene.
As aforementioned, these aren't the kinds of flaws that break the movie, but they dull a potentially wild concept down to its most boring state. Nourizadeh's stylistic direction is effective, Eisenberg and Stewart are fantastic, but American Ultra ends up not unlike its protagonist: full of potential that we never actually get to see completely realized. And half-baked.