Silver Screen: American Ultra **1/2
Watch enough movies and you start to notice the little seams that show through when a filmmaker isn’t entirely successfully at holding together a frayed production. Dialogue clumsily dubbed into a shot that conspicuously avoids showing the speaker’s face, weird little inconsistencies in lighting and hairstyling when reshoots don’t quite match the original footage, seemingly important characters coming or going with little explanation or fanfare.
There’s a story in the seams of American Ultra, an imbalanced action-comedy about a stoner assassin. And maybe an explanation, too.
Ultra reteams Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, the glum romantic duo of Greg Mottola’s woefully underrated Adventureland. She has a tendency toward monoexpression, delivering too many lines like a seventeen-year-old who would really rather be listening to the Cure right now, and his put-on prickishness sometimes seems not-so-put-on— tough to remove, in fact.
But they make an improbably appealing pair once more, here as hapless stoner burnout Mike and his endlessly patient and maternalistic girlfriend, Phoebe. Their sweet but complicated relationship is the movie’s greatest and most consistent asset.
That complicated relationship— he has panic attacks whenever he reaches the city limits of their tiny town, confining her to a too-small life— gets even more complicated when a group of government assassins show up to bump him off.
In what amounts to a wish-fulfillment fantasy so extreme you’d have to be high to dream it up, all of Mike’s problems, from his panic attacks to his drug habits and municipal agoraphobia, were implanted by the same shadowy government agency that trained him to be a killer. Mind control not only erased his memories of his badass past, but installed psychological tics that would keep him from cluelessly blundering into the truth.
Mike is targeted for elimination by cartoonishly sleazy bureaucrat Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), a bombastically odious backstabber with his own small army of government-engineered killers. He battles wits with Victoria (Connie Britton), Mike’s old handler, in a series of scenes that are wildly out of sync with the rest of the movie’s dry, dark humor. These overlong diversions don’t quite feel transplanted from a different movie entirely, but one whose purpose is perpendicular at best to American Ultra’s The Bourne Lebowski vibe.
The telltale seam showing here is a generically antagonistic sheriff played by character actor Stuart Greer. Early in the movie he pulls Mike and Phoebe over to harass the former and plead for the latter to find a more suitable soulmate. The sheriff is privy to intimate details of their relationship, and he seems to have a strong rooting interest for no discernible reason. Midway through the movie he proves his dedication by sacrificing himself to save Phoebe, yet their ill-defined connection can’t be too strong, because she never bats at eye at his death or mentions him again.
The sheriff is clearly the remnant of some subplot that couldn’t be cleanly excised. It’s but one among a number of odd notes in the movie’s increasingly dissonant shifts between tender indie smirking and boldfaced genre parody. In fairness to American Ultra, the filmmakers are attempting a weird tonal mashup, probably just not one this weird and mashed.
Woe to the movie in a constant state of disagreement with itself. Perhaps there was some chasm between the goofy-seeming premise from screenwriter Max Landis and the execution by director Nima Nourizadeh, whose jazzy flourishes of flashback and animation to bookend the movie are entirely absent through the rather understylized second act. Talented supporting players like Walton Goggins, Tony Hale, and John Leguizamo drum up some momentary interest, but they’re unable to make much impact with their hastily sketched characters.
American Ultra is equally difficult to love and to hate. It’s best greeted with a stoned shrug. Whatever, man, that was pretty cool. But we probably won’t remember it tomorrow.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.