Someone Sprayed Paraquat on ‘American Ultra’

This movie will harsh your buzz, man.

The stoner. At first, Hollywood wanted nothing to do with the dope fiend, making mocking cautionary tales like Reefer Madness. Over time, pot went from pariah to possible plot point, the ’60s ushering in a detente, of sorts, with dope. Fast forward a few years and a couple of comics named Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong converted marijuana to movie (previously recorded album) magic.

Now, stoners are like geeks, an accepted element of the entertainment biz, as apt to show up in a sitcom or film as the catty gay friend, or the crotchety old man. Indeed, we’ve moved all the way from stereotype to archetype, which kind of sounds like the same thing. In fact, we have gone from turning the blunt man from the butt of the jokes to the dude dishing them out. It’s Up in Smoke (1978) with more smarts. Seth Rogen, James Franco, and other famous faces have given weed the kind of legitimacy that gangsta rappers have been hoping for since Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.

Now comes American Ultra, a humorless hybrid of ganja and genre contrivance. Max Landis, who last scored something significant with his screenplay for the found footage superhero mash-up, Chronicle (2012), teams up with Nima Nourizadeh, the director behind the first person POV party nonsense Project X (2012), and has come up with a big fat paraquat of a motion picture. It wants to be like Pineapple Express (2008) — one part laugher, one part actioner. Instead, it ends up feeling incomplete and ragged, a series of under-baked ideas played out by one over-baked lead.

Jesse Eisenberg is a fine actor and he does his best as nested government agent Mike Howell. You see, our hero is one of those brainwashed, waiting to be activated spies, someone who needs a set of unusual code words to come out of his stupor. He works a dead end (Kevin Smith inspired) job at a convenience store and pals around with Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart – yes, Bella from Twilight) whose a receptionist for a bail bondsman. Both hate living in West Virginia, but she can’t leave, as she suffers from anxiety attacks when the subject is broached.

One day, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) walks into Howell’s life. She was his CIA handler. Our hop head has no memory of this. Apparently, he was part of a secret government program, now long decommissioned (read: destroyed). He’s the last survivor agent, and is in dire straits thanks to Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). He annihilated Victoria’s project and now wants Mike dead, too. Thus the dynamic is set up: unknown super spy does incredible things that he can’t account for. Competing forces try to influence/destroy him. Lame action sequence follows lame action sequence. People smoke pot.

Add in Walter Goggins as a psychotic hitman type and John Leguizamo as Mike’s dealer and quasi-mentor, and you have a cast that could have knocked this out of the park. Instead, American Ultra borrows heavily from the drug it uses as a narrative thread, turning mellow and eventually meaninglessly inert when it should be hyper and stylized. The reason Pineapple Express worked is because director David Gordon Green acted like a student of both genres. He really sold both the stoner stuff and the last act stunts.

Here, Nourizadeh shows once again while Project X was one of the worst films of 2012. He has no sense of flow, his action scenes crash. Even worse is his comedic timing. Eisenberg and Stewart were fantastic in Adventureland (2009), a much, much better comedy. They had pizzazz and heft. Here, they register a similar level of chemistry, but that’s about it. Neither character is very compelling, even when Mike becomes an accidental bad-ass. Instead, it’s all doobies and dullness.

You can tell what Landis was looking to accomplish. It’s as obvious as a one sentence studio pitch (“slacker stoner is actually a highly prized government operative waiting to be ‘activated!'”) but the execution is off. It’s as if neither he nor Nourizadeh wanted to go full tilt boogie on the idea. Instead, they pull punches, stress the stupid, and pray that the audience is as high as Eisenberg when they visit the Cineplex. Otherwise, American Ultra will be nothing more than a late summer slog.

This is a perfect example of the “Why?” concept in modern moviemaking. Why make this particular story? Why cast these particular actors? Why try and mix stoners with spies when something more creative or outside the box would have been better? Why Nourizadeh? Why? There’s nothing worse than wasted potential. With a cast this capable and a writer with a sense of both story and culture, American Ultra should be better — a lot better. Sadly, not even Cheech and Chong could salvage this swill. Instead, all this movie will do is harsh your buzz.

RATING 2 / 10