The psychedelic posters for American Ultra make the film’s purpose clear: it’s a bold, stoner comedy. The film’s tagline — “Everyone’s getting smoked” — further drives the point home. Unfortunately, like most potheads, American Ultra fails to deliver on its promise.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner with an ambition problem. He wants something beyond the life he has created in the small West Virginian town he lives in. Unfortunately, he’s all too content working at the local convenient store, getting high while doing so, and coming home to his all too understanding girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Things begin to shift for Mike when a federal agent (played by Connie Britton) comes to visit him at the convenient store one night. Through a string of nonsensical words, the agent activates a deadly night of gun-slinging, bomb-blasting debauchery for Mike and Phoebe — just your normal stoner comedy, right?
Comedy is by far one of the hardest genres when it comes to telling a good story. When the main purpose of a film is to get a good laugh, major details like structure and plot can get lost in the name of going for the joke. For American Ultra, the comedy seems to have been prioritized and the all important question of “What is at stake?” is simply forgotten. Between the rushed introduction of the “romantic” leads and the disjointed CIA storyline, there is no space for the audience to get to know these characters or give us a reason to care about them. This set-up worked in the sense that the film is just bizarre enough to be funny, but the humor is one-note, rarely going beyond a well-written line or two. The surface level humor of American Ultra is further compounded by the sheer violence of the film. Guns were a plenty, as were other cringe-worthy kills brought about by dust pans and spoons. Yes, spoons.
A case could be made that this was simply a wrong person, wrong film situation, but as a big believer in comedy, this reviewer stands by the sour taste left in her mouth by American Ultra. There is also the chance that maybe, just like it’s main characters, American Ultra is best watched while stoned. Maybe then this peculiar film would make a little more sense.