Alan Markfield / Lionsgate
“American Ultra” is one of the more bizarre films to hit theaters this year. The premise, a small-town stoner being activated as a CIA killing-machine experiment, reads like a graphic novel that had a small initial print run but nonetheless developed a loyal cult following online, probably spurring some fan fiction along the way. A mishmash of various genres and sometimes conflicting tones, it’s far from perfect. It’s bound to leave as many members of the audience confused and jolted as it does entertained.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Max, a stoner convenience store clerk in small-town West Virginia, where he lives with his girlfriend Phoebe, played by Kristen Stewart, a stoner of equal caliber. Max has panic attacks on the regular and a hard time grasping basic common-knowledge concepts. He spends most of his days dreaming up adventures for comic characters he draws in his notebook, while manning a cash register and cooking up instant noodles.
Meanwhile, back at CIA headquarters, wheels are in motion to harsh Max’s buzz in a most bodacious way. Topher Grace, here embracing his most resonant inner weasel, plays Agent Yates, who, in his run for interdepartmental glory and workplace name recognition, has dispatched a team to eliminate Max before he begins to pose a threat. This does not sit well with Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton), former head of the program that led to Max’s creation, so she heads over to Appalachia to activate his dormant, lethal programming.
Here the genres begin to butt heads. Billed as part stoner comedy, part action movie, “American Ultra” is ultimately driven by the central love story between Max and Pheobe than bong jokes or spoon-assisted assassinations.
The movie builds up Phoebe as Max’s one correct choice, the one thing he’s done right with his life behind the service counter, and the relationship isn’t presented with any winks and smirks at the audience. There’s genuine devotion after the smoke clears and the blood clots. Eisenberg and Stewart show off some surprisingly developed chemistry on screen, helping to build the connection between the two characters.
Weed jokes do weave their way into “American Ultra,” but not to the extent that the movie’s marketing blitz would have you believe. Max does have a problem — he’s a perpetual underachiever who is constantly making mistakes — but this is more associated with CIA brain-tinkering than one too many hits of Dragon-Kush Mega Pineapple Whateverthefuck. Pot isn’t as much used as a vehicle for silly one-liners or gags as it is an excuse for other characters to dig on Max for his failings. Maybe living in Colorado since marijuana was legalized three years ago has altered my views on this a bit, but it feels like an outdated and disproven argument.
“American Ultra” risks being drawn and quartered at times by a failure to decide on a genre, but Stewart and Eisenberg build enough onscreen chemistry to make you care about what happens to the characters. It’s a damn weird movie, but it’s one I wouldn’t mind watching again.
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