Well, the dream eventually had to die. After a surprisingly solid start to August (“The Gift” and “Straight Outta Compton” rank among the year’s best films), we are back to the regular dumping of dumpster movies in the dog days of summer.
“American Ultra” stars Jesse Eisenberg as a stoner who is actually a sleeper agent for the CIA. After being targeted for death, he is activated and alongside his stoner-in-crime girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) must stop the CIA agents (led by Topher Grace) who want him gone. Connie Britton and John Leguizamo also star as Nima Nourizadeh (or as I like to call him, “Nima Nour—yeah, that guy”) directs.
Stoner comedies are a fickle bunch. Some transcend expectations and work as a plain comedy for the sober, like “Harold and Kumar” or “Pineapple Express.” Others are just plain stupid and aren’t fun for anyone, like “Your Highness.” And then there are the stoner comedies that are probably wonderfully trippy when you’re high, but aren’t great if you watch it while not on drugs (*clears throat* which should be all the time, because drugs are bad and illegal!). “American Ultra” falls into that third category.
I will give credit where credit is due: “American Ultra” knows it is a stupid stoner comedy, and very rarely tries to be anything more. The action is enjoyably and mostly chaotic, which Nourizadeh proved he is capable of capturing in his only other directorial project, “Project X,” and all the actors seem to be dedicated to having a good time. For what it’s worth, “American Ultra” is a relatively well-made movie; it’s just a shame it is a relatively not good one.
As I said above, “American Ultra” is probably a very good time if watched under proper circumstances, but a stoner comedy, in my opinion, shouldn’t pander just to that demo. Films like “Pineapple” or “Harold and Kumar” are great because they know not all of their audience will be high while watching, so low-barrel humor and trippy black light sequences aren’t the only source of entertainment they strive to provide. “Ultra” doesn’t have very many well-written jokes, so unless Topher Grace saying the f-bomb several times during a temper tantrum is your kind of humor, then there isn’t much in the film to laugh at.
One other thing that annoyed me was a character played by Walton Goggins. This is the most minor of spoilers but it isn’t going to ruin the movie and to be honest, you shouldn’t care. It is revealed early in the film that Grace’s character has been training mentally insane people to be CIA agents; however the film treats Goggins’ character as if he is mentally challenged. He acts like a young child and even though the film tries to justify his and its actions by saying “they messed with his head,” I found it in poor taste and just plain grating.
Look, I know “American Ultra” wasn’t trying to be a smart, sophisticated comedy, but if it featured more than three laughs I would have appreciated the effort. This is exactly the kind of movie you will find playing on Comedy Central at 3pm on a Saturday, and maybe as background noise it works. But I didn’t find it all too entertaining, despite the cast’s admirable efforts and the crew’s impressive production work. Go rewatch “Pineapple Express” instead of watching this; better yet, go see “Straight Outta Compton.” Your brain and your wallet will thank you.
Critics Rating: 4/10