Sunday, September 06, 2015

movie review: American Ultra

I was excited to see American Ultra after watching the trailer--I thought it would be an action/spy thriller/comedy with an interesting plotline. Stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is working his dead-end job at a convenience store when a very odd sunglass-wearing woman (Connie Britton) comes in and basically whispers, "Psst, the crow flies at midnight. Cherries mayonnaise samurai." Even high as a kite, Mike is understandably mystified, and figures she is just crazy--but then when two assassins try to jump him in the parking lot, he snaps into trained machine mode and kills them...with the spoon he's been using to eat his Cup of Noodles. Freaked out about his sudden ability to turn cutlery into a deadly weapon, he calls his patient girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) for help, and thus a string of unlikely events is set in motion.

It turns out that Mike is a highly trained CIA asset whose memory was wiped after his experimental project was terminated. However, now reactivated, Mike is not going to go down so easily.

Although I came into the movie with high hopes, ultimately I was disappointed. I had thought from the trailer there would be more comedy. There is comedy, but tonally, it's very uneven. At some points it is a stoner comedy; at some points it's a Coen Brothers satire of CIA ineptitude; at other points it's an ultraviolent Quentin Tarantino movie; occasionally, it even morphs into an earnest indie relationship drama with weird filters and washed out colours.  With that many competing genres and an inability to blend them together successfully, it was doomed from the beginning.

There were definitely some enjoyable parts. I actually quite liked the relationship between Eisenberg and Stewart; it seemed genuine and sweet. I like Eisenberg in whatever he's in, but I'm usually much more lukewarm about Stewart, because I find her strangely passive and bland. However, I thought she did a good job here--the role suited her well and she and Eisenberg had nice chemistry.

I also liked Connie Britton as Victoria Lasseter, the demoted CIA director who tries to warn Mike about the hit put out on him. She is so warm and humane, even while she is cracking heads and dispatching bad guys. Her easily flustered former assistant Petey (played by Tony Hale--Buster Bluth!) is hilarious and very likeable too.

Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), Lasseter's replacement and nemesis, is just straight up asshole. He is so over the top with his untrammelled ambition, gloating contempt for Lasseter, and glaring ineptitude that it's difficult to take him seriously as a character. It's just impossible to see how he would have been promoted to the level he seems to be at, though it's clear he is an ass-kisser nonpareil, so maybe that's it. However, I remain unconvinced that CIA actually works that way. Overall, Grace's character is just too cartoonish and would have benefited from a little bit more background to round him out.

And finally, I was disappointed (but perhaps not surprised) that the movie failed the Bechdel Test completely, even with the presence of two strong female characters. They never once speak a word to each other, or any other woman, during the entire movie.

Overall, American Ultra was most disappointing because it had potential. I think it needed to decide what it wanted to be and follow through on that vision with conviction. Instead, it just seemed too scattered and hyperactive. Ultimately, it is unsatisfying in its attempt to be too many things to too many audiences.

No comments: