While marketers opt to promote “American Ultra” as a comedy, that’s not what it is, well, not exactly. It certainly has funny moments, yet it’s a more of a stoner-thriller. Jesse Eisenberg, covered in a head of hair that makes me a little jealous, embodies the anxious, self-deprecating Mike, who is accompanied by his ever-faithful girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). While his life begins to get out of control in the most unbelievable of ways, the story takes the time to allow us to understand him. His anxiety and self-doubt make him instantly more interesting than half the protagonists paraded through cinema these days, and both he and Kristen Stewart breathe more into the roles than just the written words. Unfortunately, while the central relationship is well-defined and well-written, some of the supporting characters pull down the story and make it more laughable, and not exactly in a good way.
Agent Yates (Topher Grace) is a character so ludicrous one cannot even begin to suspend enough disbelief to buy that such a character could exist at a certain level in a certain intelligence agency. He’s just so much of a caricature that the character becomes laughably annoying. Maybe that was the intent. Equally silly, but far more acceptable, is drug dealer and friend Rose (John Leguizamo). Playing the role a bit over the top, John Leguizamo serves up a lot of laughs. And the set design of his house is pretty darned awesome, and home to a weirdly beautiful black-light sequence.
The only other character whom I should mention is Laugher played by Walton Goggins. As Shane on “The Shield,” I grew to despise the actor, and I have never gotten over it. Okay, clarification, I’m not sure I hate the actor per se, but Shane was so awful, I hate him which kind of makes me dislike the actor, even though I know it’s a character. Still taking on roles of less likable types, Walton Goggins isn’t doing much to change my opinion towards him. I can’t blame him though. He really is eerily good at that kind of role. He successfully comes across as creepy and off-putting in “American Ultra,” yet I feel like Laugher was underutilized here. It seems he could have been a much more fascinating and terrifying character with a little more screen time, but the film’s pacing drives it along very quickly, only slowing occasionally to provide further insight into Mike and Pheobe’s relationship, which may have been the better decision. But I still would’ve liked more Laugher.
While the story takes us into familiar territory, it does so a little differently than we might expect which results in a lot of fun. There’s a certain weird, stoner-artistic vibe throughout the short 95-minute running time. Some fun surprises await. While the movie has both positive and negative elements, the sheer enjoyment of watching it elevates it in my rating. It was just so much fun, and if you don’t leave the theater feeling a little extra peppy, then maybe you need to watch it when you are not high.