Stoners, rejoice! There are at least two rock-solid reasons to go see American Ultra: Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who bring their A-est of A games to this goofy action movie. For the stoner crew, there’s a chance to see a movie that treats its cannabis-loving characters like the real deal and not as overbaked clichés.
Well, they’re the real deal plus government conspiracies and ramen-fueled martial arts. But hey, I’m not here to put limits on your high.
The story of Mike and Phoebe, a couple of lovestruck potheads on the run after Mike turns out to be a superspy sleeper agent, American Ultra is not above inducing eyerolls. At its worst, it plays like a studio executive’s movie pitch: “Jason Bourne, but, like, a stoner.” It relies heavily on genre and it can be hard not to slip into a game of Spot The Influence—Burn After Reading here, Spring Breakers there. I like the films that American Ultra wants to remind me of, but I’m not sure if I like being reminded of them in the middle of another movie.
Director Nima Nourizadeh has a good sense of what pieces will make a good movie—eye-catching sets, long takes of elaborate choreography, inventive use of offscreen space—but he struggles with how to put the pieces together. It’s interesting that Nourizadeh’s background is in music, since this film seems to struggle with a discordant sense of rhythm, especially when it comes to balancing the film’s dueling commitments to action and comedy. The violence is too violent to be funny, but too stylized to feel realistic, and so the film struggles to build momentum as the action scenes undermine the comedy and comedy scenes impede the action.
And yet for all its messiness, I felt inclined to forgive American Ultra. It’s a movie that comes off as excited to be a movie, excited to try out different visual ideas, and that enthusiasm goes a long way. For all of the clichés American Ultra plays into, Nourizadeh and screenwriter Max Landis don’t seem interested in the boring stoner clichés that too many movies fall back on.
American Ultra’s Mike and Phoebe are neither spacey nor slow. They’ve got stringy hair and they wear flannel, but they feel like individuals and not like the latest cookies cut from the edible mold. Weed is on the rise in America—states are legalizing, its use now outweighs cigarettes among teens—and with 20 million stoners nationwide, it’s about time for Hollywood to offer different strains for audiences to enjoy. Mike and Phoebe are smart people and the jokes in American Ultra feel fresh because the characters don’t conform to our expectations of how people who smoke weed act.
It’s a truism among actors that the hardest thing to play is drunk, and one would assume high is a close second. Fortunately, American Ultra’s stars are up to the task.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to people who have been paying attention to hear that Kristen Stewart is great in this movie. Over the last five years, Stewart has used the financial freedom that only Chanel endorsements and Twilight movies can buy to carve a career for herself that feels both personally authentic and artistically experimental. Beginning with her excellent turn opposite Juliette Binoche in Olivier Assayas’s The Clouds Of Sils Maria, she’s assembled a string of auteur filmmakers lined up at her door from Ang Lee to Woody Allen to Kelly Reichardt. Patti Smith wants Stewart to play her in the upcoming Showtime adaptation of her memoir, Just Kids. Joan Jett is still singing her praises after 2010’s The Runaways. Stewart is not an actor’s actor so much as she’s an artist’s actor, and why wouldn’t she be? She has always been a potent presence onscreen. But what read as awkwardness in her teen years has developed into a rich physical and emotional connection to the camera. These days, casting Stewart is like a challenge for the brave. Can you be as honest as she is? Can you match her charisma? Can your cinema live up to what she’s going to bring to the table?
But if Kristen Stewart fulfilled my (quite, ahem…high) expectations, Jesse Eisenberg exceeded them.
Eisenberg is unique for a film actor, especially of his age and especially of this era, in that his most expressive tool is his voice. Eisenberg has written plays for himself to star in, he even founded a wordplay website called OneUpMe.com, and his acting favors his propensity for language. His line deliveries on American Ultra’s stoner rambles are every bit as precise as they were with Aaron Sorkin’s zingers in The Social Network, and it’s a total pleasure to not be subjected to another drooling stoner cliché—but as a bonus, Eisenberg’s added an almost Chaplinesque physicality to his performance that came as a complete surprise. Where most actors play stoners as clods, in Eisenberg’s hands, American Ultra is like a stoner ballet. I laughed more at the way he held his hands or moved his feet than I did at any of his lines.
Eisenberg and Stewart were paired before in Greg Mottola’s underrated Adventureland, and there as here, they make an inspired duo. They speak the same language from opposing ends of the spectrum—he is expressively hyperarticulate and she is expressively inarticulate, and in the weirdest way, it completely works for them.
There are times when it feels like the two actors care far more about the movie’s central relationship than the actual movie does and that feeling is amplified whenever we leave them to check in on the film’s many unnecessary ancillary characters. It can be jarring to watch Eisenberg and Stewart when the film’s script or direction veers into shallowness—a montage of Stewart licking her lips amid point-of-view shots of what it would be like to have sex with her comes to mind, along with every scene that includes Topher Grace.
But in a way, I think the incongruity between the movie and its stars is what I liked most about American Ultra. More than once I found myself gaping at the screen, thinking, damn, are you really going to give this much to this character? Are you really going there right now for this line? Stewart and Eisenberg bring chronic when I would have settled for mid-grade. And that’s what makes it interesting. American Ultra thinks the spectacle is in the phony spy stuff, but the real spectacle is watching two actors dodge the impulses of their own movie in real-time. Come for the action, stay for the acting—there are worse reasons for a trip to the multiplex.