American Ultra movie review: Bourne to lose

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American Ultra yellow light John Leguizamo

It’s one joke dragged out for 90 minutes, and while it’s not entirely unamusing, the comedy feels mired in the same stoner fog as its slacker protagonist.
I’m “biast” (pro): like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s one joke — stoner slacker Jesse Eisenberg is actually a sleeper badass covert operative, har har — dragged out for 90 minutes. And while it’s not entirely unamusing, the fact that the trailer tells the same story in two minutes and doesn’t feature any fewer jokes than the film itself tells you all you need to know. Mike Howell (Eisenberg: Rio 2) suffers from panic attacks, a kind of agoraphobia that doesn’t allow him to leave his small West Virginia town, and a complete and utter lack of ambition. But life isn’t too bad, because he has an absolutely perfect girlfriend, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart: Still Alice), who is tolerant to the point of saintliness of his many problems and hangups. Director Nima Nourizadeh — in a much better followup to his first movie, the execrable Project X — and screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) seem to be under the same sort of stoner fog as Mike, never quite able to ramp up to truly clever levels the SF-ish conspiracy comedy as Mike gets activated in unauthorized fashion in order to defend himself against an even more unauthorized liquidation; a wickedly twitchy Topher Grace (Interstellar) and a surprisingly droll Connie Britton (The Fitzgerald Family Christmas), as warring CIA agents battling over Mike and his deadly talents, are crying out for a better movie in which to strut their comedic action chops. The overall upshot is of yet another fantasy reassurance aimed at the only audience Hollywood appears to care about at the moment: Don’t worry, boys and young men ages 13 to 24, if you’re a stoner fuckup with no goals and no idea what to do with your life. Not only is this situation probably not your fault, there’s a good chance you may be some sort of highly trained and highly awesome killing machine. Wouldn’t that be neat?

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of American Ultra for its representation of girls and women.

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Fri, Sep 04, 2015 7:00pm

Just ‘cuz it’s not a remake/franchise/etc., that doesn’t make it good.

Oh well. I thought this would hinge on how the girlfriend was treated by the narrative, and it looks as if they went for the easy option.

Fri, Sep 04, 2015 7:34pm

“Why did American Ultra flop in the US?”

It’s one joke dragged out for 90 minutes, and while it’s not entirely unamusing, the comedy feels mired in the same stoner fog as its slacker protagonist.

Well, there you go. :-)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Sat, Sep 05, 2015 11:06am

Well, no. Hardly anyone went to see it opening weekend, so they cannot know that. And this movie is certainly no worse than many other movies based on previously existing material, and it’s better than many.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Sep 06, 2015 9:44pm

However, the TV ads did not exactly present the movie in a good light and the movie’s two official trailers virtually gave the whole story away.

Plus August has a reputation for being a dumping ground for summer movies that were not considered worthy of release earlier in the season.

So the odds would have been against it even if it had been a better movie.

Tue, Sep 08, 2015 7:45am

I thought this movie had a surprising amount of heart, and balanced tongue-in-cheek spoofiness and sincere admiration for the spy movies that came before if very well. I’m only mildly embarrassed to say that I teared up at “I think I’m the tree.”

reply to  dijonesque
Tue, Sep 08, 2015 11:50am

Twice. I teared up twice, including the time the line reappeared at the end.

Well, okay, I didn’t actually tear up. It was kind of a mediocre movie. But if this had been a comic strip, you would have seen a big thought bubble over my head with “AWWWWW” written in it.

I was surprised how uneven the film was: Every other scene was terrific, almost literally. There’d be a scene full of witty, profound dialogue and then a scene with boilerplate lines and grade-school jokes. (All the really terrible lines went to Topher Grace, who deserves better.) Jesse Eisenberg would come up with an inventive escape plan using a cup of soup or a frying pan and then, in the next scene, his clever plan would be: Pull out a gun. Shoot somebody. Also, of course, they forgot to give Kirsten Stewart’s character a personality other than Adoring Girlfriend. It was as though the movie had a split personality, which was symbolically appropriate but a little disappointing.

But in spite of that, I agree with you. The best moments—including the lines about the tree—were just brilliant enough that I left the theatre with a big smile on my face. And the cast was talented enough to make even the worst lines strangely touching. I can’t actually recommend the film, but I can recommend every other scene.

reply to  Danielm80
Tue, Sep 08, 2015 4:36pm

I went into it with very low expectations, (though I never read reviews of movies I haven’t seen) which helped a lot. Kristen Stewart could have had more depth, I agree. She is a better actress than she gets credit for, in my (unpopular) opinion. The good parts of this movie were quite good, though. Tony Hale and Connie Britton were both excellent, and their relationship felt very authentic. I disagree re: Topher Grace, I thought the clichéd lines worked because he delivered them all with such a knowing wink, and the end result was a character who was pretty monstrous, but simultaneously eerily similar to the annoying kiss-ass in every office. One thing I didn’t like at all was the ending-as-set-up-for-a-sequel. Only marvel can get away with that, and just barely.