American Ultra: Come for the Actors, Tolerate the Plot

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Worth it. Photo: Lionsgate

Since being hurled under protest onto the A-list with the Twilight series, Kristen Stewart has been the butt of critics and columnists whose commentaries call her “mopey,” “slack,” “twitchy,” “unwashed,” etc. The defense admits everything but the “unwashed” part — I’ve never been close enough to know. But just because her material is crap and you can’t see her acting doesn’t mean she’s not the real thing. She was magnetic when mining her own discomfort in Olivier Assayas’s The Clouds of Sils Maria, and she was indelibly in the moment — alert to every grim beat — opposite Julianne Moore in Still Alice. I don’t know that she’s ready to play Hedda Gabler — maybe someday. I just think she’d just rather do things small than do them false.

I loved watching her and Jesse Eisenberg in the new American Ultra. It’s a smartly written, dully plotted action picture about a druggie slacker who discovers he’s not who he thinks he is. It’s The Dork Identity. The movie evaporates in the mind, but Stewart and Eisenberg have real movie-star chemistry.

Eisenberg is a strange, estranged actor. In the beginning of his career, he played awkward, gulping sweet kids. In The Social Network, he began playing awkward, gulping paranoiac assholes. In the first scene of American Ultra, he’s bloody and bruised and sitting opposite a police detective, too broken to emote. His name is Mike Doyle, and until the day before, it was all he could do to pull himself out of bed to work at a convenience store, his imagination manifest in a superhero graphic novel he was always sketching. It’s adorable when he phones his girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart), to tell her about the latest plot turn and she drinks it in, on the same page emotionally. They’re a pair of wounded souls groping for something more stable.

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh from a script by Max Landis (son of John), American Ultra has an unusual amount of wit and sincerity for something that’s formula crap. After Topher Grace, as a smartass overambitious CIA boss (he’s modeled on a Hollywood agent, not a spook), decides to “clear the portfolio,” a conscience-ridden Connie Britton heads to the middle of nowhere to warn Mike of something terrible coming down. Eisenberg is amusing when he hears her code words (“Is that a lyric from something?”), and more so when — under deadly threat — his body begins to move with a dexterity that his conscious mind can’t fathom, instinctively turning ordinary objects into lethal weapons.

The violence is ultrasplattery to compensate for the scenario’s ultrablandness, but it’s done reasonably well, and Eisenberg is good at registering his sudden mind-body discontinuity. (For a while he’s convinced he’s actually a robot.) Walton Goggins adds a touch of unformulaic looney-tunes as a CIA-scrambled psychotic assassin. But there’s an extraordinarily stupid turn: Stewart’s Phoebe is kidnapped and handcuffed for the last third of the movie — all she has to do is make acidic comments about how terrible the CIA are and how they’re underestimating Mike’s resourcefulness. Literally the only thing that kept me happy and surprised was Stewart and Eisenberg’s tricky rhythms together, and when they’re wrenched apart, the film has no reason for being.

American Ultra is undemanding late-summer studio fare — ultraforgettable. But I’ll remember the faces of Eisenberg and Stewart, who are easy to ridicule but, whatever the pundits say, very much movie stars. Their apparent directionlessness is in sync with their generation. Their transformation into action heroes is outlandish but, for a while, so comforting.