Dueling Critics: American Ultra

20:30 August 21, 2015
By: David Vicari, Fritz Esker

A pot smoking slacker (Jesse Eisenberg) finds out he is, in fact, a lethal government agent in this action-comedy written by Max Landis and directed by Nima Nourizadeh.

Fritz: The new action comedy American Ultra has talented pieces in place. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart had good chemistry together in 2009's underrated Adventureland. Screenwriter Max Landis wrote Chronicle, which is the only found footage film I like. But for me, the film didn't come together. It was rarely funny and relied too much on excessive, over-the-top gore. What did you think?

David: I felt it was desperately trying to be a cult film because of its annoying self-conscience quirkiness. And, yes, the blood and gore felt like an attempt to be edgy. For all its labored idiosyncrasies, the film is fairly predictable and routine. You're correct that Eisenberg and Stewart had chemistry in the wonderful Adventureland, but here I think one of the big problems is that Eisenberg's character is such an unlikable sad sack. How did you feel about the characters? 

Fritz: Well, Eisenberg typically plays neurotics in all of his roles. In The Social Network, he's a largely unlikable nerd but the movie still works because of the story and the dynamics between the characters  (David Fincher directing doesn't hurt either). In Zombieland, Eisenberg is a wuss with a million phobias. Granted, there his role is of the "good guy" nerd variety. But that movie's a lot of fun because it has him interacting with three other people with distinct personalities. That film's story was nothing new, just as American Ultra's amnesiac secret agent plot isn't, but Zombieland worked because of the characters.

American Ultra, which is barely above 90 minutes, has a secondary storyline involving Connie Britton and Topher Grace as CIA bigwigs. They have a few amusing moments, but it's time spent away from developing the leads. One of the few supporting characters the film brings into Eisenberg's orbit is John Leguizamo as a drug dealer, but he is just loud and obnoxious. Walton Goggins' assassin is also more grating than scary. Stewart and Eisenberg's relationship already exists before the movie starts, so there's not much development until a late plot twist. 

What changes do you think could've made a better film?

David: Snappier pacing for one thing would have made a positive difference. The movie takes its sweet-ass time getting started and when it does it's nothing special. That said, I also think that Eisenberg's character finds out exactly what's going on far too early. Why not play it like The Truman Show where everyone is in on it except for the main character. There are lots of potential jokes that can can stem from the fact that the hero is clueless.

You mentioned Zombieland, and one of the reasons that film worked is that Eisenberg's neuroses are funny. Here, they are not.
I know there are some that claim Kristen Stewart is a one-note actress, but I disagree. I feel she is good in the right role, like playing Joan Jett in The Runaways, but here she is given little to do? Agree?

Fritz: Yes, I agree with you about Kristen Stewart. She was also very good in Still Alice. I think the Twilight series is just kind of a black hole for actors.

My final thought on American Ultra is that it's so hard to get the tone just right in any action/comedy or horror/comedy. Movies in the past like the aforementioned Zombieland or Fletch or Beverly Hills Cop or The Other Guys pull it off. Here, the action and the comedy don't seem to mesh. It's a lot of blood and gore, but the action scenes aren't staged well enough and there's not enough laughs in between.


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