Film and TV

Reviews for the Easily Distracted:
American Ultra

 American Ultra

Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote: "I've got a question for you: Could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot that he himself could not eat it?"

Rating Using Random Objects Related To The Film: Three wizard bongs out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: The sleeper awakens, has the munchies.

Tagline: "Everyone's getting smoked."

Better Tagline: "Yes, yes...because they're high. We get it."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Life is good for Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart). Well, "adequate" anyway. The pair lead a life of quiet indolence, working low-end jobs in the little town of Liman, West Virginia, and smoking a lot of weed. That all changes with the surprise arrival of government assassins, unleashed by an ambitious CIA officer (Topher Grace) eager to snuff Mike out. Turns out he's the product of another CIA program (headed by Victoria Lasseter, played by Connie Britton), designed to engineer a super-spy. The question is, will his rusty skills be enough to save himself and Phoebe?

"Critical" Analysis: American Ultra is exactly the kind of movie you'd expect from the team-up of Nima Nourizadeh, director of the party epic Project X, and Max Landis, writer of the low-budget superhero flick Chronicle. How appealing that combo sounds to you is more or less how much you'll enjoy this movie.

Because let's be honest: We're not covering any new ground here; sleeper agents have appeared in movies since The Manchurian Candidate, and stoners have a rich cinematic tradition dating back to Reefer Madness (fine, Easy Rider). Merging the two genres isn't exactly a no-brainer, especially when Eisenberg and Stewart have played romantically linked underachievers before (Adventureland).

In other words, there's a familiarity around the whole production. As a result, most of the cast cruises safely in their comfort zone: Eisenberg and Stewart slack formidably, John Leguizamo cuts up profanely as Mike's dealer and Walton Goggins creeps everyone out as one of the deranged enemy operatives. The only exceptions are Grace and Britton, playing warring government spooks as if their careers depended on it (and they might). Grace is always a good villain, projecting insufferability and incompetence in equal measure.

Most of what works therefore results from the juxtaposition of Mike's near-lethal torpor with his brutal efficiency as a killing machine. Eisenberg is always best when operating on some level of befuddlement (which doesn't raise expectations for his impending portrayal of Lex Luthor, but let's not worry about that now), and his gradual rediscovery of his identity is one of the movie's positive aspects.

Another is Kristen Stewart. I've gotten shit for this before, but Stewart is a very good actor. She had zilch to work with in the Twilight abominations, and has taken mountains of abuse for her personal life because there's certainly nothing else going on in the world that requires our attention, but her portrayal of Phoebe — a more complicated character than we initially assume — proves what anyone who paid attention during Into the Wild, Adventureland, Camp X-Ray, or Clouds of Sils Maria has been saying all along: She has serious talent.

Nourizadeh also captures the bleak sameness of rural America with depressing accuracy. Liman, West Virginia (actually shot in Louisiana, but the point stands), is a dying town, with the only functioning businesses in evidence being Mike's convenience mart and the bail bonds joint Phoebe works at. It's a realistic place to stow a stoner Jason Bourne (Stourne?), but also realistic, period. Unfortunately.

Having said that, I wish all of this were in service of a better film. Like the stoners it's trying (and succeeding, if the baked giggleshits behind me in the theater were any indication) to appeal to, American Ultra is intermittently amusing. It earns a recommendation thanks to the charm of its leads and some creative violence (the climactic battle is reminiscent of the hardware store fight in The Equalizer, only better), but I didn't *like it* like it.

American Ultra is in theaters today. See it with a bud! HAHAHAHAHA

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar