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American Ultra | Review

The Long Spliff Goodnight: Nourizadeh’s Stoner Action Flick Mixes Kooky with Convention

Nima Nourizadeh American Ultra PosterComprised of a tangle of similar narrative threads spliced together from a variety of genres and time periods, Nima Nourizadeh’s sophomore directorial effort American Ultra is generally more often entertaining than not, though considering the significant reputations of its leads and zany array of the supporting cast, it could have been better served with a bit more outlandishness than the conventional acts it delivers. As it stands, the success of this rural set conspiracy comedy depends mostly on the low-key charm this rather approximately defined scenario allows to transpire, but it ultimately isn’t goofy enough to allow for the cult notoriety something like this promises. As scripted by Max Landis (again returning to the landscape of youthful, self-reliant outsiders as in his 2012 Chronicle), there’s not a whole lot of surprise, but much like its drug of choice, wallows in the usual set of enjoyable side effects.

In a small town pocket of the Midwest, easily distressed stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) lives a quiet existence living with his bail bondsman girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) as he works the register at an isolated grocery store called Cash & Carry. He desires to overcome his panic attacks and take her on a vacation to Hawaii, but can’t seem to muster the courage—its obvious Phoebe mostly takes care of him. So what a surprise it is for them both to discover Mike is actually a secretly trained government agent, activated by his former handler Lasseter (Connie Britton) when a nemesis government agent (Topher Grace) attempts to annihilate the remnants of her long since abandoned human rehabilitation via super spy opportunity experiment. However, Lasseter has no intentions of seeing her project be obliterated and usurped by her colleague.

Those familiar with their filmographies will note Eisenberg and Stewart starred previously in Greg Mottola’s 2009 film Adventureland, an equally pleasant union calling for the performer’s more charming skills. Assumedly, they’ve been styled to look visually similar, which adds a certain level of visual comedy sometimes not evident in the usual shenanigans seen in stoner themed films and conspiracy action thrillers.

Shades of guilty pleasure flick The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and the modernized version of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) strained through topical disciplinarian policy comprises the vagueness of this super-secret government operation which boils down to the result of a pissing contest between top tier officials. Due to the secretive reveals of certain characters, we learn preciously little about them beyond certain tics, like Eisenberg’s penchant for drawing a cartoon ape of his own creation which looks to have been inspired by images from a Basement Jaxx music video.

As usual with Eisenberg, it’s difficult to divorce his nebbish personality from performance, though he elicits several laughs thanks to his character’s overwrought helplessness, leaving most of the tough guy stuff to co-star Stewart. Carefully edited action sequences calling upon his character’s special-op ass-kicking skills never quite look as slick or believable as one might like.

Continuing to surprise with her level of comfort in material she’s actually interested in, Stewart is likeable and gets a few twists of her own here, even though this role as stoner’s cozy girlfriend doesn’t demand much range. As their sparring government leaders, Connie Britton is an interesting touch as a demoted official protecting the integrity of her pet program. Sadly, the ever unimpressive Topher Grace appears as her unlikely nemesis in a duel you’ll see the outcome of a mile away (and it doesn’t help that Bill Pullman’s already truncated presence makes his eventual service all the more foreseeable thanks to a fleeting appearance early on).

John Leguizamo also has a brief appearance as a colorful drug dealer, while comedian Lavell Crawford feels underutilized as one of his trigger men. Demurely entertaining, and probably a bit more offbeat than its marketing would suggest, American Ultra also doesn’t exceed expectations, even as it recalls a host of past B-movie conspiracy tropes. As compared to Nourizadeh’s 2012 teenage bacchanalian debut Project X, this is a marked improvement.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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