Editor’s Notes: American Ultra opens in wide release this Friday, August 21st.
Jesse Eisenberg has had many different roles. He’s been the inventor of Facebook, a neurotic zombie killer, a radical environmentalist, a neurotic pizza delivery guy, and an animated cockatoo, not to mention Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Now, in American Ultra, director Nima Nourizadeh’s follow-up to financial hit/critical miss Project X, Jesse Eisenberg is a neurotic sleeper agent who smokes weed sometimes.
Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, the local stoner/store clerk/cartoonist, who, unbeknownst to him, is secretly a government sleeper agent awaiting activation.
The plot here is a loose one. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, the local stoner/store clerk/cartoonist, who, unbeknownst to him, is secretly a government sleeper agent awaiting activation. All is well, until a big, evil CIA bad guy (Topher Grace) decides to terminate him for no good reason. Upon hearing this news, a fellow CIA employee goes rogue and travels to Mike’s convenience store, where her attempts to activate him are met with confusion. Soon after, Mike gets into a fight with a pair of government operatives, and discovers he’s suddenly attained unparalleled combat skills. No doubt a surprise, he uses these skills alongside his longtime girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) to stop the government from carrying out their plans, which spontaneously evolve from the assassination of Mike to the bombing of a small town. There’s action, there’s jokes, there’s relationship drama, and there’s existential crises. Come one, come all.
Well-acted dramatic vignettes, like the jokes, are definitely there. But with no jokes in the dramatic vignettes, and no drama in the jokes, each one can at times feel pretty awkward.
What results from this amalgamation of concepts is, expectedly, imbalance of tone. This doesn’t always spell disaster for a film, but easily can. And in American Ultra‘s case, it spells disappointment, not disaster. Successful jokes, as scattered as they may be, are definitely there. Well-acted dramatic vignettes, like the jokes, are definitely there. But with no jokes in the dramatic vignettes, and no drama in the jokes, each one can at times feel pretty awkward. The action scenes are, collectively, a third wheel, not really inspiring much awe. They’re serviceable, but quickly cut and shaky, letting you know what’s happening, but not letting you absorb it. Several opportunities for physical comedy are thrown out the window, and it’s hard to see areas with such potential waste themselves. Nima Nourizadeh’s direction displays moments of greatness, like the introductory shot to a primary villain being an effectively startling silhouette, but doesn’t do so consistently enough to make these moments have an impact.
It’s tough for me to be hard on this, though. There’s apparent material that, when mixed properly, could churn out a really memorable dramatic comedy. Like an action-heavy cousin of Jonathan Levine’s 50/50, if done with the utmost skill. Its writer, Max Landis, shows a considerable grasp on how to properly write the drama and comedy-based portions of dramatic comedies, separately doing both considerably well. Translating his script from page-to-screen seems to be where the finished film’s issues stem from. Maybe it’s another facet of the creative process. Something went wrong somewhere, that’s what matters.
But, this isn’t a review of American Ultra‘s production, this is a review of American Ultra. And American Ultra is harmless, sporadically funny, but not nearly well-crafted enough to be worthwhile.
American Ultra is harmless, sporadically funny, but not nearly well-crafted enough to be worthwhile.