Some movies are more substantial than others. Some are nourishing meals, while others are snacks. American Ultra is definitely among the latter, and that’s okay. Snacks taste good and it’s fine to enjoy them in moderation. But, if I can run with this metaphor a while, American Ultra is not just any snack; it’s cotton candy. It’s so light and insubstantial that it melts away in an instant, and just a day later I find it hard to be sure that I ate anything at all, much less describe it.
One thing I can say it’s not. I went in knowing this was supposed to be an action comedy about a stoner, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), who turns out to be a highly lethal CIA sleeper agent — the title undoubtedly referencing the infamous MKUltra projects — and was expecting something more like Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master, but with pot. Instead, it’s more like straight-up Bourne style spy action, but played with an absurdist wink.
So Mike is living in a small town in West Virginia, working at a convenience store. He worries that his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), is meant for bigger things, and he’s holding her back. There are a couple of touching scenes between the two, but they don’t really add up to much. That’s kind of a running theme, here.
Back at the CIA, a rising star named Yates (Topher Grace) has decided to clear the remaining assets of the “Wise Man” program under which Mike was trained off the books using his own program “Tough Guy”. The officer who had been in charge of Wise Man, Lasseter (Connie Britton), finds out that Mike is in trouble and decides to help him. She travels to his town and activates his programming just before Yates’ forces descend.
Writer Max Landis has the same facility with characters he showed in Chronicle, and the cast take it from there.
Eisenberg and Stewart are, if anything, understated in their portrayal of Mike and Phoebe’s relationship. I’d love to see another story where it’s just their quietly bittersweet romance, but as it is that has to get out of the way so we can get to the action.
Grace is perfect as the overeager young upstart so desperate to prove his worth and yet so frustrated that he doesn’t get his way. It’s a nice way to play out his still-boyish charm and twist it into something with a little more depth than we’d expect from a guy who looks like a disposable preppie character.
But it’s Walton Goggins that steals the show as “Laugher”, one of the Tough Guy assets. He manages to be creepy and menacing early on, but closes out his screen time with a gut-punch of a scene where he feels more like Lennie Small than anything else. It’s the one part of the movie that I still can’t get out of my head.
And that’s kind of the thing with American Ultra. There are all these little knots of story or character that stick around, but everything else just fades away. I remember that I had fun, but not really anything special or particularly interesting about it. It’s like a Cheeto, designed to melt away as you eat it, leaving part of you feeling like you’ve had nothing at all. And the parts that really stick are too few and far between to add up to much at all.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.