The best thing about “American Ultra,” a movie about two stoners who find out the CIA is trying to kill them, is how incredibly real, lived in, and sweet their relationship is. Without the reuniting “Adventureland” pair Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg as the leads, the film could have easily been just another dumb stoner action film with moderate laughs.
Instead, we get one of the best recent films, along with “Neighbors,” about how a couple in a long-term committed relationship deal with a crisis. As a team, Eisenberg and Stewart approach being like a modern Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, though the dialogue in the film, admittedly, isn’t at that level. It’s almost entirely in their delivery.
Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a sweet, loving, and slightly helpless young man with a penchant for weed and a mindless job at the local Cash and Coin where he draws comics and invents stories. The excitement in his day consists largely of changing the day of the week on the sign outside the store, which advertises discounts inside. He lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), with whom he shares a fondness for marijuana, as well as absolutely everything else.
This is one incredibly connected couple. We watch them cuddling in bed together, professing their love with complete earnestness and sharing their troubles. They’ll call each other in the middle of the day just to share a minor anecdote or idea. And they regularly cuddle on the hood of their car while Mike tells the latest story he’s come up with that he’s too laid back to consider writing down despite Phoebe’s encouragement — one of them is about Apollo Ape, the astronaut monkey [sic] who goes on adventures.
Mike would be lost without Phoebe. He’s got anxiety about many things; the film opens with him having a panic attack at the airport about the prospect of leaving town, foiling their plans for a vacation in Hawaii. Phoebe regularly calms him down, offers sensible but not condescending advice, and returns his banter tit for tat. She gets him like nobody else and vice versa. He’s so carelessly stoned that he can’t even make an omelette without almost setting the house on fire. Meanwhile, he offers her immense generosity, care, and love. But it’s also clear that they’re both far too smart to be working these jobs and wasting their minds away looking for the next high.
Two bizarre things happen to Mike on successive nights that will forever change his life. First, CIA Agent Victoria Lasseter (a kick-ass Connie Britton) pays him a visit to warn him he’s in danger and to “activate” him. It turns out he’s a sleeper CIA agent, with super-power like fighting and spy skills, but when the program was cancelled, his mind was wiped. Lasseter tries to explain what’s happening, but she uses such obfuscating language that it might as well be gibberish; Mike reacts politely with confused amusement.
The second event is that a pair of assassins stop by the store to try to kill him, but armed with no more than a spoon and some hot soup, he turns the tables and kills them, instead. Completely freaked out by his surprising dexterity — and the accidental murders he just committed — he naturally calls Phoebe for help and support. She helps him strategize, as they suddenly find themselves chased by hundreds of deadly assassins who will stop at nothing to kill them.
If you want to see a feat of great, subtle physical, acting, you need look no further than Eisenberg’s performance in these two scenes. Most of the humour from Mike’s reactions to Lasseter’s seeming nonsense come entirely from Eisenberg’s very subtle facial movements: his eyes darting from left to right or his eyebrow twitching. Immediately after killing the two assassins, the quick, defensive movement he makes to drop the gun he can’t believe he’s holding says everything about how he’s feeling in that moment, and it’s hilarious. The juxtaposition between Mike’s ridiculous skills and his quiet demeanor is essential to the film’s brand of absurdist comedy.
Eisenberg wrongly gets a bad reputation for playing the same neurotic characters over and over again. Yet even though neurosis is one shared characteristic of all three of his roles this year, his performances couldn’t be more different, both in how he physically creates the characters and their overall personalities. As Dave Lipsky in “The End of the Tour,” he was a power-hungry intellectual, always conscious of how small he is. As Jonah in “Louder Than Bombs,” he was a sensitive academic in over his head, struggling to maintain the façade of having a perfect life. And as Mike, he’s an unassuming, warm presence who can’t believe what’s happening to him.
Of course, Kristen Stewart is every bit Eisenberg’s match, and she has to work twice as hard to infuse her character with pathos, humanity, and specificity because it’s so under-written. When they’ve been running from their assassins for some time, Phoebe refuses to let Mike make the decisions because he’s been making bad ones. The way Stewart combines small gestures with sardonic dialogue to illustrate his recent mistakes is hilarious. And she manages to do it in a way that’s supportive and gentle rather than condescending, without ever coming close to giving up any little bit of her agency. They’re a team, and she’s the brains behind the operation. By effectively playing it straight, she and Eisenberg manage to create realistic characters in a wholly unrealistic situation.
Topher Grace gets the thankless role of playing the young, entitled upstart in the CIA with questionable judgement whose job it is to foil our heroes at every step. He’s about as annoying as humanly possible, but that’s the part as written: this is like Eric Foreman at his absolute worse, except as a grown up. It’s a shame he’s not a more interesting nemesis, but then screenwriter Max Landis is following the golden rule of “Sherlock Holmes”: make the villain just dumb enough that our leads who occasionally lose their common sense can easily and believably foil his every move.
Much of the plot that follows is silly and predictable, as well as being, with few exceptions, shot unimaginatively: director Nima Nourizadeh effectively sets the camera up in front of the actors and shoots, with next to no thought about purposeful framing or movement, aside from trying to get it to look nice. And you know what? It’s a lot of fun, even if the film loses steam in the second half. It isn’t nearly as good as Eisenberg and Stewart deserve, but spending 90 minutes with this pair is a pretty great way to spend an evening.