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Half-baked stoner comedy 'American Ultra' misses its target

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American Ultra | B-

Rated R | 90 mins.

It doesn't work, but I'm impressed with how hard it tries. On the surface, Nima Nourizadeh's American Ultra is the kind of half-baked action flick that gets released in the dog days of August. Part stoner comedy, part spy thriller, part things-that-go-boom, it has the go-for-broke quality of a graphic novel created by a 19-year-old hopped up on Red Bull. Which makes sense when you consider that the screenwriter is the exuberantly self-applauding Max Landis (Chronicle).

And yet, there's an infectious sincerity to both the writing and the acting that elevates what is otherwise a messy mashup of tone, style, and storytelling. The keys are Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who are mostly miscast but bring an authenticity to their characters that sells the emotional core of the film, even as it undermines the already threadbare comic and action affectations.

Mike (Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Stewart) are a pair of blissed-out stoners living in a small West Virginia town. "We're the perfect fucked-up couple," Mike says. She's perfect (and adoring and patient) and he's the fuck-up who works at a bottom-of-the-barrel convenience store, draws cartoons in a sketchbook, and has panic attacks every time he tries to leave town. It's this condition that derails his plans to propose to Phoebe on a Hawaiian beach.

What Mike doesn't realize is that he's actually a sleeper agent for the CIA, the product of a Jason Bourne-like program that gives him mad assassin skills. When his creator, Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton), learns that he's been targeted for termination by an ambitious dick of a desk jockey (Topher Grace), she activates her former guinea pig in an attempt to keep him alive. It only kinda sorta works. Mike's killer instincts kick in, but his stoner persona still rules. That makes him formidably lethal against the "Tough Guy" operatives that attack him two by two, but clueless enough to make foolish choices (like stopping to listen when they call out his name).

There are chases, and brutal hand-to-hand confrontations, and gun battles, and urgent telephone calls, and explosions, and it all gets very repetitive very fast. Yeah, it's nifty to watch Eisenberg dispatch a pair of assassins with a cup of instant noodles and a spoon, and the supermarket-set finale is the perfect setting for his gift with improvised weapons (soup cans, a dustpan, frozen hamburger). But the gore-coated ass-kicking isn't particularly inventive, and Nourizadeh (Project X) directs without panache or wit. The film constantly feels like it's getting away from him.

More confused is the film's tone. While directors like Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Kingsmen: The Secret Service), Quentin Tarantino, and even George Armitage (Grosse Pointe Blank) have found the right balance between gonzo violence and offbeat humor, Landis and Nourizadeh mostly flail about, awkwardly lurching from cartoonish sadism to indie-serious romance. It's the latter that comes closest to working — mostly due to Eisenberg and Stewart (who has successfully rid herself of her Twilight stench).

Though there's no reason on paper why it should, Mike and Phoebe's relationship actually works. This is because Eisenberg unearths the pathos in his perpetually screwed-up character. Mike's not just a high concept punchline, he's a guy who realizes he's his own worst enemy ... and is powerless to change. Stewart, on the other hand, turns her thinly written, highly improbable girlfriend into a veritable fountain of conflicting emotions. She understands her boyfriend's shortcomings and loves him anyway, showing us her frustration, concern, anguish, and even pride. Together, the two communicate more with their glances and facial shifts than any of Landis' contrived plot twists.

That said, it's Landis' charming first act, unhinged earnestness, and a pair of strangely effective third-act gestures (one involving Walton Goggins' psycho) redeem his dopier conceits. He gives the film's two leads just enough meat to gnaw on, and one wonders what his scripts might look like if he abandoned his geek fetishes and embraced a more indie sensibility.

Unfortunately, the rest of American Ultra's cast fares less well. Britton is solid in a thankless role, Bill Pullman is wasted in a cameo, Goggins is crassly repellent as a hick assassin, and Grace treads career water as a smug, douchebag villain. But it's John Leguizamo's affable but profane drug dealer that embarrasses most. It's the kind of role he used to mock (and lament) in his one-man shows. One can only assume he needed the paycheck.

At the end of the day it's hard to actually recommend Nourizadeh's film. American Ultra is too uneven and predictably bombastic to justify the price of admission. And its final coda truly baffles — betraying the moral stance it seemed to espouse earlier in the picture. But if you're intrigued to see what a pair of first-rate actors can achieve in a second-rate film, it at least has the good sense to limit its running time to 90 minutes.

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