Movie Review: American Ultra
By Ben Gruchow
August 25, 2015
They sew together images shot with clarity and depth by Michael Bonvillain (he worked on Eisenberg’s 2009 comedy Zombieland, which was another movie that understood the concept that silliness and gravity were not mutually exclusive, and was also far better-looking than it needed to be), working off of a fairly whacked-out screenplay by Chronicle’s Max Landis, and what results are scenes - especially in the early going - that have an unusual amount of texture to them. It’s not at all meaty enough to sustain a movie that would be dedicated to it, but it’s more detailed about depicting complicated and partially broken relationships, and the anxiety of suspecting that you’re stalled-out in life without knowing why, than it ever really needed to be.
Eisenberg and Stewart are both perfect for these types of roles, with the former managing to project a suspicion of inquisitive intelligence under a fairly constant veneer of dimwitted amiability. That is not an easy task, and Mike is not a particularly complete character (later in the film, when crucial bits of information begin to trickle out, we realize that we have very little context for it other than what we’re strictly being told), but Eisenberg takes these spare parts and creates a believable person.
Stewart is his equal. We’ve known since Panic Room that the actress can sell a range of elevated emotions; the Twilight series shuttled her into blank window dressing for four or five years, but she hasn’t lost her touch. And with Britton, the movie gives us something we see far too little of: a warm and authoritative middle-aged female character, who can easily hold her own against both the movie’s villains and the protagonists. It’s the second time this month we’ve seen such pull and power exerted by an older woman in a major motion picture, and it’s implemented so quickly and smoothly here that it doesn’t feel forced.
So with all these favorable marks, why am I only giving American Ultra a “maybe” for success? The movie steps wrong in two areas: one middling, and one major. The major one is Topher Grace’s CIA bureaucrat Adrian Yates. In a film that’s possessed of a surprising unification in its character approach, he sticks out like a sore thumb. We don’t buy him as a leader, or as a threat, or as any kind of force to be reckoned with. Don’t get me wrong; Grace does good enough work translating Yates to the screen. The character itself is broken; every time the movie cuts to a scene involving him, it loses traction and momentum rapidly, and the character’s escalating hysteria seems to have wandered in from another, much dorkier movie.
The middling issue is probably down to me being ungrateful toward a movie that aims higher than its target for most of its running time instead of all of it. There is a point where the movie appears to be on the verge of ending and cutting to credits; if American Ultra had done so at this point, it would have been surprising, unconventional, and absolutely fair. There is, by this point, nothing left we need to really learn about our characters, and it would have closed out this deranged little adventure on an unambiguous high point.
Instead, the movie keeps going for another four or five minutes. It’s only three scenes, really; they’re short, and they’re well-acted. Those final minutes, though, serve to let quite a lot of air out of the movie’s climactic sequence and resolution. Sometimes you don’t need to know what happens after the fireworks finish going off, and needless explication of character resolution can become tiresome. It’s honestly the most tonally moderate and commercial part of a movie that is messy, undisciplined, utterly implausible, with a reach that exceeds its grasp - but absolutely its own creature, and one that’s decidedly not assembled from the standard genre parts.