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NPR Arts & Life

A Stoner Film Goes Up In Smoke In 'American Ultra'

Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) are a pair of potheads in <em>American Ultra</em>.
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) are a pair of potheads in <em>American Ultra</em>.

Within the mishmash of influences on the stoner action/comedy American Ultra— namely, Repo Man, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Pineapple Express, and a pile of pointless hyper-violent comic books — the film nearly finds itself in the cognitive dissonance of a pothead who discovers his inner badass. There's something funny about Jesse Eisenberg, that sentient bundle of nerves, standing over the bodies of government agents he's just dispatched with a spoon and a piping hot bowl of ramen noodles. The movies have offered plenty of weaklings-turned-heroes, but American Ultra teases something like an out-of-body experience, scoring early laughs off the gap between Eisenberg the Fruity Pebbles muncher and Eisenberg the laser-focused killing machine. He greets his own carnage with a toker's uncomprehending stare.

Once the marijuana smokes clears, however, American Ultra loses that shred of novelty and becomes a glib, juvenile exercise in violence for its own sake, squandering the lived-in vibe between Eisenberg and his co-star, Kristen Stewart. Eisenberg and Stewart got a head start on their romantic chemistry in Adventureland, an '80s nostalgia piece that cast them as amusement park employees who turn to each other out of boredom and lust. They pick up where they left off here as Mike and Phoebe, a pair of layabouts in small-town West Virginia who seem mostly content with getting baked and spinning their wheels. Mike's panic attacks keep them penned in, but Phoebe's disappointment over a failed trip to Hawaii is short-lived — she's happy enough to be stuck in their little rut.

As they soon discover, however, Mike isn't a weak-stomached convenience store clerk, but a sleeper agent in a secret CIA program that's been discontinued. When a sniveling young muckity-muck (Topher Grace) in Langley decides to close the book on the program and eliminate him, Mike's original training officer (Connie Britton) risks treason in an effort to protect him. So begins a military siege on a one-horse town that seems populated only by Mike and Phoebe, a few policemen, and John Leguizamo as an all-purpose dealer of narcotics, fireworks, and other contraband.

Screenwriter Max Landis tips his hat to Repo Man by conceiving Mike as a lowly clerk wrapped up in a government conspiracy, but the comparison does American Ultra no favors. Gone is the punk spirit that animated Repo Man, replaced by a protagonist who represents nothing and stands for nothing, and a CIA that has no clear reason for starting the secret agent program or for ending it. At best, the film functions as a shaggy-dog adventure, with Mike and Phoebe improvising their way through a situation that grows more absurd by the minute. But for long stretches, Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh ( Project X) forget they're making a comedy at all and allow bloody, pointless mayhem to take over.

American Ultra joins a recent spate of comics-inspired actioners, like Kingsman: The Secret Service and the two Kick-Ass movies, that go out of their way to divorce their cool-for-the-sake-of-it shootouts from anything resembling a theme or purpose. Eisenberg and Stewart give the film some humor and heart in its quieter moments, but once the cavalry comes to town, those moments are few and far between, replaced by the sound of heavy artillery and shouting. It's more a cocaine movie than a pot movie, a buzz-harshing thrill-ride that feels as dissociated from the low-key promise of its opening minutes as Mike the super-agent feels from himself. His reaction is ours: Why is this happening?

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