A review of the summer stoner comedy, American Ultra.
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart
With a decent cast and a promising premise, American Ultra was poised to be a surprise hit. It had a concept that could have lent itself easily to comedy while simultaneously allow for some exciting action. Unfortunately, the film only showcases a small portion of its true potential.
Ultra is directed by Nima Nourizadeh and stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as two stoners living mundane lives in West Virginia. Eisenberg spends his days working at a convenience store while Stewart spends her nights as a hotel receptionist. One night, when Eisenberg catches a pair of masked men breaking into his car, he discovers that he is able to kill them with remarkable speed and skill. As it turns out, there just might be more in store for him than smoking pot.
There were several ideas presented in the film that translated from script to screen quite well. Eisenberg’s mysterious phobia of traveling made an intriguing plot point that paid off once its true cause was revealed. A certain twist dealing with Stewart’s character is presented around the halfway mark that added a surprising amount of drama to the story and her relationship with Eisenberg that I wasn’t expecting. The film is more than just the stoner action-comedy that the trailers are leading you to believe; it’s the film’s romantic storyline that takes the center stage, and it’s by far its strongest element.
The biggest problem with this film, however, is that it tries to accomplish too much in too little time. It wants to be a stoner comedy, a drama, a romance, and an action movie all at once, but doesn’t have a sure sense of balance. It’s like a juggler who doesn’t know how to juggle.
Some aspects of the film shine while others fall flat. The romance is what works above everything else. Amongst a plethora of flashy set-pieces, stoner jokes, and action movie tropes is a love story that is fleshed out and effective in immersing the viewers into the struggles of the two leading characters.
Eisenberg and Stewart’s dynamic creates some genuine drama and romantic chemistry that was both believable and engaging, and this is primarily due to the actors themselves. Einsenberg and Stewart are both excellent here. Sure, Eisenberg isn’t exactly stepping out of his comfort zone, continuing to play the socially-awkward nerd once again, but he knows the part so well by now that he always seems to find the right roles that call for that kind of performance. Stewart continues to prove that audiences shouldn’t blame her for certain past career mistakes, as she is equally great here. The chemistry between the two, as well as their performances, is what made the film watchable throughout.
And the rest of the cast? Utterly forgettable.
Topher Grace as the newly-appointed leader of the CIA mission tasked to take down Eisenberg is borderline hammy, which clashes with the action and romantic aspects in the film. If the film had a better sense of focus, perhaps his character would have worked a lot better, but whenever he was given screen time, I found myself impatiently waiting for Eisenberg and Stewart’s return. Connie Britton was passable in her role, and Bill Pullman was downright useless. He was only featured in the film for a solid five minutes, and the plot would have largely gone unaffected had he been cut out.
In the end, the two leads are the only two who give memorable performances, which is unfortunate, as the film has so many different storylines going on simultaneously. Although it only runs just past 90 minutes, it feels much longer because there are so many different subplots that need to wrap up before the credits.
While Ultra isn’t a failure, it certainly isn’t that hit summer comedy it set out to be. The film ultimately falters due to a lack of solid direction and focus. There isn’t an action scene that stands out, and only a handful of jokes land.
Eisenberg and Stewart are excellent here, but there isn’t much else to lift this stoner comedy hybrid sky high.