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Entries in American Ultra [2015] (1)


American Ultra (2015)

Low Times

The last half-decade is a blur. Between my day-job, critic-job, and family-man responsibilities, it’s a struggle to keep details straight, or to even stay connected with any non-anxious emotions. The greatest casualty of this unchecked momentum is perspective, and it took an unforgivably lousy movie to slam the brakes and help me appreciate that A) my son starts kindergarten next week, and B) my mom has cancer. I knew both of these things, of course, but I didn’t feel them until halfway through American Ultra, an ugly, unending, and unnecessary distraction from everything that’s good in the world.

Don’t be fooled by the film's pedigree. Yes, Max Landis wrote it; yes, it stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Walton Goggins, and Connie Britton; yes, director Nima Nourizadeh’s previous film, Project X, was a massive hit. But this film about a small-town stoner (Eisenberg) who must fight off CIA operatives when he realizes he, himself, is a deactivated killer, languishes in a desert of derivation. American Ultra will test moviegoers’ patience as they hope against hope for something original to happen.

There are too many problems to discuss and not enough reason to discuss them. So please indulge me in addressing three big offenders:

1. Misogyny is the new Pet Murder. Early in the film, a slimy CIA middle-manager (Topher Grace, reprising his roles from Predators and Spider-Man 3) berates a former colleague (Britton) over whom he now has authority by calling her a bitch. This opens the door to a series of nasty, run-time-spanning insults aimed not at the agent’s performance, but at her femininity itself. Landis lazily employs a broad-strokes approach to painting his villain, the way other filmmakers might make the bad guy shoot an animal. He avoids the hard work of crafting strings-pulling subtlety, and instead conjures a hateful, over-the-top corporate-climber type who would’ve been denied an internship in the Langley mail room.

2. John Doe Genre. Based on its creators’ previous films, American Ultra should have been, if not special, at least entertaining. Project X provided a gleefully sadistic nail in the coffin for the Wild Teen Party sub-genre, escalating the exploits of three unlikable high schoolers past merely stealing beer or losing their virginity and into a realm that can best be described as the 9/11 of house parties. For his part, Landis elevated Chronicle from a mere mash-up of comic-book movies and found-footage flicks into a grim commentary on omnipresent media, domestic abuse, and friendship.

American Ultra is both Nourizadeh and Landis’ sophomore effort, and I was surprised to find that instead of being taken to places I’d never been, the film is a rickety tour bus ride through every place I’ve been, cinematically. The aimless-lovers-taking-on-colorful-hitmen-and-feds was perfected in True Romance. The travails of amnesiac spies have been well documented in the Bourne franchise. And Jesse Eisenberg already played a stoner-turned-reluctant-hero in 30 Minutes or Less. Instead of going bigger, weirder, or funnier, the filmmakers rely on conscience-free violence and rhythm-free vulgarity to mask their inspiration-free plot.

3. The Great Unknowns. Jesse Eisenberg is too serious and established an actor to play a convincing stoner. Even at his most spaced out, his eyes betray an intelligence that suggests he spent a lot of time embedded with burn-outs to get their mannerisms down just right. His 30 Minutes or Less character also smoked a lot of weed, true, but he was also keenly aware of his own smarts; he was sour and unapplied, as opposed to the allegedly mousy convenience store clerk Eisenberg plays this time out. Imagine a still-unknown Brad Pitt playing this part by channeling his Floyd character from True Romance performance. On a dime, we'd witness (and believe) a truly hapless pothead morphing into the cool, collected Sexiest Man Alive.

Like Ant-Man, American Ultra is packed with actors whose filmographies clash dramatically with their characters in ways that make this project feel like an alimony/pool-money gig. Only Goggins, as a certifiably insane hunk of government muscle, is allowed a moment to elevate the material beyond its bloody pre-teen-fantasy clichés (in a too-brief scene that happens way too late). Ironically, the film might have benefited from placing lesser-known talents at the fore—but without big names attached to it, I doubt Landis’ script would've made it off the shelf.

I attended the advance screening of American Ultra after work on Tuesday. It was downtown, which meant catching a train, which meant not driving home to read my son bedtime stories. It also meant not calling to check on mom (in case you’re wondering, I don’t consider that a public-transit conversation). I’ve justified these kinds of necessary but unfortunate sacrifices as occupational hazards in being a spare-time film critic. But movies like this make me wonder if anyone involved in making them realizes just how precious time really is, how fleeting.

On the plus side, I met a new film critic named Emmanuel after the screening, and had a great conversation with another critic friend, David, as we made the long, rain-soaked trek back to the North Side. For the second time that evening, my perspective shifted. In this rejuvenated state, I vowed to slow down, to love more, and to tell as many people as possible to stay the hell away from American Ultra.