Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pot Secret

Year: 2015
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I am far from a sucker for stoner comedy. Cheech and Chong blow right through me. Apatow’s tittering cronies hardly phase this old square. But when I saw the trailer for American Ultra, it tickled me. This looked like a film that wasn’t just content to pander in goofy munchies antics, but actually engage intelligently and – most importantly – ludicrously with them. I was all in.

Sometimes you take a gamble and it doesn’t pay off. Sometimes you hit it big. Sometimes you bet ten dollars and win back eight dollars. American Ultra was a little like that last one. I will take a perfectly strange film over a perfectly adequate film every time, but when it’s the latter (as American Ultra certainly is), it’s pretty hard to complain about that.

Alas, but I will. I mean, what are blogs for?

But first, the pot. Plot. I mean plot. In American Ultra, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is an unmotivated stoner living with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Unbeknownst to him he is also a sleeper agent. When the government, led by Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), decides to terminate him, his creator Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) rebels. In an effort to save is life, she activates him, but his weed-addled mind doesn’t give him the whole picture. He now has incredible fighting and firearm skills, but no memory of how he acquired them.

You get the picture. Screwup stoner can suddenly pull James Bond moves, but he’s confused and terrified as to why. Really, it’s a great concept. When a cadre of other “assets” arrives to destroy him, he and Phoebe fight back with startling aplomb.

Also Tony Hale is there because he’s awesome.

First off, this film doesn’t earn itself any favors by beginning at the end, a structural gimmick that barely works at the best of times and completely spoils itself at the worst. At the very least, American Ultra finds a middle ground between these two camps with an interesting reversal, but it still has the effect of watching the trailer right before the film. You’re just sitting around waiting for certain shots and situations to appear, not actually focusing on the story or letting it draw you in.

Approaching the film with that bias already in place is far from helpful, considering that American Ultra does everything in its power to prevent you from being drawn in. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a potentially wonderful film being strangled by producers in real time before, but that’s exactly what’s happening here. They engage with the concept like it’s a dead cockroach, buffering the truly buoyant moments with wads of painfully generic action sequences, a mid-film twist that unnecessarily complicates things, and a totally frivolous John Leguizamo cameo. I love the man, but the ham he is asked to sling weighs down the film like an anvil.

I’m sorry, John. I loved you in To Wong Foo.

But beneath that flaky coat of doldrums lies a deeply original, fun action comedy. You can’t pitch a movie as “stoner version of The Bourne Identity” and not have it come out at least a little kooky. Like I said, American Ultra seems oddly restrained in its promise of delivering weed gags atop a genre framework, like an adult hesitating to tell their parents about some mischief they pulled back in high school, but when it clicks it’s intelligent and hilarious. Gags can be simultaneously juvenile and wryly satirical, yet still gut-tickling no matter at which level you choose to receive it.

A lot of these clicking moments can be attributed to the leads, whose chemistry is as perfect as the time that guy accidentally invented matches. I mean, who knew Eisenberg and Stewart were so right for each other? And yeah yeah, Adventureland is a thing, but who actually liked that movie? What makes their casting in American Ultra so brilliant is the routes their careers have taken since that time. Kristen Stewart has stepped onto the reluctantly presented indie pedestal, and Eisenberg has some Oscarbait under his belt.

His progression has allowed them to relax while handling Blockbuster comedy roles, applying newfound skills to their approach. While some might argue that Kristen Stewart playing a stoner is as obvious as Kirk Cameron playing a crazed zealot, she tackles this role with a surprising zeal. A good comedy can be measured by the relative quality of its emotional extremes, and she rides between those tones like she’s in the X Games.

Are those still a thing? I’m not thirteen anymore, so I wouldn’t know.

Jesse Eisenberg matches and exceeds Stewart, completely externalizing the twitchy, anxious frivolity of the script at its best. Most of the film’s funniest moments belong to him, and not just because he plays the protagonist. His portrayal avoids caricature, encapsulating one guy and his tics like a mosquito in amber.

OK, before I bury you under any more similes, let’s wrap this up. American Ultra is a light, pleasant comedy film with action that occasionally rears its head to be clever. It won’t rock your world, but it will cheer you up. What more can you ask for, really? And look at it this way. If you rent this movie, that’s one more excuse not to watch You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. You’re welcome.

TL;DR: American Ultra is a pleasant but unchallenging Hollywood comedy.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 923


  1. "beginning at the end, a structural gimmick that barely works at the best of times and completely spoils itself at the worst"

    Now, now, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard do okay. But yeah, 90% of the time it's a little bit of a crutch.

    Also, John Leguizamo is indeed pretty great. (I watched Carlito's Way again last week. And I've been meaning to rewatch Romeo + Juliet for, like, a year.)

    1. You caught me. Maybe I exaggerated a smidge. But people have been desperately hitting that trope lately without understanding how it functions.

    2. Hey, Carlito's Way, I just remembered: pretty great use of beginning at the end!

      (That said, Carlito's Way is also my go-to example for another overused/badly-used trope, for it has some truly merciless voiceover narration.)