Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg make a good match, as shown back in 2009’s Adventureland, so there were no ‘chemistry’ concerns for their reunion in American Ultra. Labelled a ‘stoner comedy’, American Ultra is much more than this suggests; it’s difficult to categorise a film that contains comedy, ultraviolet action scenes, romance and elements of a spy thriller.
This ‘stoner comedy’ has been criticised for its lack of a concrete genre and it’s very easy to dismiss the whole thing as ridiculous and silly, but I think it only really appeals to a certain audience. Personally, I really enjoyed the mashup of genres because it’s what makes it so unusual; Nourizadeh has almost created his own messed up, romcom/thrilleresque genre. The comedy and action are equally so out of place that it’s never clear what’s serious and what will happen next. Despite the understandable confusion, I think this can be a bit of a blessing as the serious moments make the specks of comedy more subtle and less forced. A lot of comedy films lately are so obvious and in-your-face because of the audience’s demand for instant laughs, putting a lot of pressure on the genre and resulting in a lot of forced, unintelligent gags. American Ultra has tried to provide a fresh take by slipping the gags in so awkwardly that you don’t really know whether you’re supposed to be laughing when you do find something funny such as when Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) falls through the roof when trying to escape the CIA assassins. Thrillers are another genre overdone so Nourizadeh’s decision to explore another take on them is brave; Mike’s (Jesse Eisenberg) weapons of choice, such as a frozen hamburger or saucepan, means the film is aware of its own absurdity making it fun and exciting to watch.
Although I support Nourizadeh’s experimentation with genre, the plot does suffer slightly as Mike’s questions are never coherently answered and I left not fully understanding Mike’s true identity. However, the outlandish plot somehow seems to flow and it was relatively easy to stay on track.
The film opens with Mike stressing about the best way to propose to his long-term girlfriend, Phoebe. This is the root of the film and everything that happens after is almost like a metaphor for the complications that society chucks at you when all you want is a simple life with the one you love. It explores a twenty-something’s perspective on love and life and how to take the next big step while fully realising what it is that truly makes you happy – just in a very unusual way.
Mike couldn’t be more of a stereotypical loser – I think the burnt omelette was one step too far though – in a dead-end town in West Virginia with major anxiety issues (or so he thinks). Phoebe is his rock and although he’s a loser, he’s her loser in their ‘perfectly fucked up’ relationship. The action is a major part of the film but Nourizadeh doesn’t jump straight into it, instead he focuses on setting the scene and explores their relationship initially which suggests the small town love story is key and the action in between is just a sub-plot to shake up the tired genre.
American Ultra doesn’t fail to shock with gruesome deaths and it’s no surprise that main characters also meet their grisly fate. Even the government seem to shout ‘fuck the law’ with the way they deal with things in the extreme circumstances. Yates (Topher Grace), the rogue CIA agent, is a misogynistic dick basically and unfortunately Nourizadeh takes this a little too far. I never really find misogyny funny and even when mocking it, it’s giving it attention, so the less time it gets on screen the better in my opinion.
The two main characters are played expertly and are what saved the film from flopping completely among major critics. Stewart and Eisenberg are a believable match, probably because of their concrete rapport, and their laidback, carefree personalities make them ideal candidates to play two stoners with simple lifestyles.
It’s clear that Mike and Phoebe are perfectly content with their simple lives and don’t need the drama society brings to be happy. This is shown at the start in the beautiful ‘spooning’ scene; their matching tattoos are shown to only make sense when they intertwine. American Ultra is a concoction of genres, but ultimately it’s a modern love story spreading the message that simple things really are the best.
Maybe American Ultra flopped because people can’t cope with experimental genres and Nourizadeh should have stuck to one genre. Maybe I’ve been blinded by Stewart and Eisenberg’s performances. However, I can’t help but feel that it deserves a lot more credit than it received. It was never going to be a box office hit or a big-budget thriller, but that’s kind of the point. It’s a simple variation of a mixture of things that are swarming cinema screens lately. Sometimes a lighthearted film is needed and as a big lover of both thrillers and comedies, I welcomed this change.