Alright, so this post is going to be a little different from the standard Monday/’Lessons” post. Normally, I mention seeing, reading, or playing something and then analyze a few possible takeaway morals or ideas from the overall work. This time around, the “lessons” won’t be concerning the narrative but more the actual film and how it worked, or more accurately how it didn’t. However, as always there will still be SPOILERS ahead.
So before we really dive into the issues I had with American Ultra, I think you will need to see the trailer at the very least for any of this to make sense.
Doesn’t that pretty much scream stoner action comedy? It did to me, so when I went to see the movie that was pretty much what I was expecting. Unfortunately, that is not what I got in the theater. Now, that is not to say that a film cannot subvert expectations for entertainment or social commentary. Many great films (both big budget and indie) have in the past to great results. Some random examples, and quality movies you should see, of such a thing are Tucker & Dale vs Evil, Cabin in the Woods, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Dot the I, and many more. Had this film attempted some form of subversion, I think I could have forgiven a few more aspects and enjoyed it more, but it didn’t even try that. Instead, what I was treated to was a jumbled mess of intriguing possibilities but ultimately unfinished and underdeveloped ideas and tangents.
Okay, before I get accused of trashing this film without cause, let’s get down to the finer points. First off, let this film be a lesson to all future productions in marketing. By that, I mean studios/distributors need to learn how to market the product they have and not the one they wish they could deliver. This film, based on the trailer, posters, and many of the interviews, was marketed as a stoner action comedy a la Pineapple Express for a younger generation. The problem is the film was never really any of those things. Yes, the two lead characters smoked pot, but were hardly stoners/potheads and weed had little impact on their overall lives. There were a few action sequences throughout the film, but they were all relatively short except for the final one near the end of the movie. And finally the comedic bits were few and far between within the film.
In all honesty, the movie was more of a romantic drama/coming of age story between the two main protagonists, Mike and Phoebe (Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart). Had the promos and marketing strategy revolved around that aspect, it would have been better done and possibly better received. Yeah, it might not have been seen as the stoner comedy of the summer, but isn’t it better to be more honest with your audience than to deliver a flop. Though, to be fair, the romantic subplot had its own major issues that will be discussed later. Overall, when your stoner action comedy has little action with a few comedic bits thrown in while one dude occasionally smokes weed, you have some issues with your film.
Beyond the marketing, which directors, actors, or writers rarely get a vote on, the actual narrative of the film was full of inconsistencies, incomplete tangents, and underdeveloped ideas. Seriously, I saw this movie about two weeks ago and still have questions/concerns about it.
Basic synopsis is Mike Howell is a burnt/forgotten/former CIA asset who lives in bumpkin town in Virginia with his girlfriend Phoebe and no memory of his past as the sole survivor/”success” of the ULTRA project. For some unknown (no seriously, the film never really bothers to explain why) reason, a new CIA sub-director decides that he needs to be killed, so he sends assassins, top secret (recently trained) TOUGHGUY (again, not joking that is the code designation) assets, and essentially an army battalion against this one guy in a “covert” mission to end Mike’s life. Along the way, Mike is “activated” by his handler but still manages to be an ignorant nuisance while also being a fighting badass. We also learn that Mike’s entire life as he knows it has been a lie and that his girlfriend is actually also a former CIA asset. Eventually (rather quickly actually), Mike gets over this betrayal and takes down all the CIA assets that were sent against him. He then becomes a top secret Bond/Bourne style agent at the end.
Seems like a pretty good movie, or at least interesting, movie from that pitch right? Well, movies are longer than two minutes and that is where a lot of the problems come into play. The story just doesn’t make a lot of sense. To begin, the movie states that certain aspects of Mike’s brain were altered to ensure his safety, e.g. his crippling panic attacks whenever he tries to leave the town and all knowledge of his former life. Sure that makes sense to a degree, but did the CIA also deprive him of desire, passion, and basic common sense? Just because someone smokes pot doesn’t mean they want nothing out of life, but that is essentially the best way to describe Mike’s character. Lazy, impotent slacker who smokes pot and is mildly obsessed with his girlfriend. There was never a singly point in the film when I empathized or really cared about Mike’s story or progression/evolution (though there really wasn’t any on that front either). You can have stoner characters. You can write slacker characters. You can create pure evil or even ambivalent nuisances, but you must still make the audience care about them in some way or for some reason. If you don’t, you failed at your job.
Moving on to the character of Phoebe. Unlike Mike, she is fully aware of both her and Mike’s CIA past. She knows that he cannot physically leave the town without dire consequences beyond his panic attacks. Still she has, on multiple occasions, attempted to do so and then has the gall to be angry that he is unable to do so. If she loved him, wouldn’t she try to dissuade him from leaving since there would probably be a CIA death squad waiting for them at whatever their final destination happened to be? Secondly, the audience is supposed to believe that Phoebe was so in love with Mike that she literally gave up her life to be with him, but there is no evidence to suggest this. The movie begins with her being angry and disappointed with him about their inability to go to Hawaii (even though she knows they can’t go) and criticizing his slacker actions and ambitions. At no given point in the film, do we get the notion that they share a bond worth the sacrifices she made. In fact, half the time I wasn’t even sure she liked him so much as tolerated his actions.
Then the CIA comes into play. The lead antagonist, Adrian (played by Topher Grace), is characterized as a cowardly, narcissistic, brown-noser who got his high position on a technicality and through kissassery. Fine, I can see that. I have known several people like that throughout my life. Here’s the thing. Those type of people are not risk takers. They are not proactive go-getters. They are at best opportunistic scavengers. They would wait for the perfect easy win to impress their superiors. What they wouldn’t do is send their brand new assets to cause a lot of destruction and attention. They also would never act without their superior’s knowledge for fear of repercussion. More importantly, once failure kicked in, they would most certainly never double down on their bet as they would flee immediately and find the nearest scapegoat to pin it on. Basically, hardly any of the actions taken by the character of Adrian align with the type of character the film has developed. Also, it was never really clear why he wanted Phoebe taken in alive since she was, at that point, a major liability. I thought the movie was alluding to some sort of romantic triangle between Mike, Phoebe, and Adrian as the unrequited/scorned ex or something but if it was, again it was way underdeveloped.
Add to this a bunch of underwhelming secondary characters and unclear moral lessons and notions and you get a messy, incomplete story which is the major issue I had with the film. The tagline pitch sounded amazing. Stoner action comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg as a pothead who learns he is actually a CIA super killing machine. But here’s the issue, what’s the rest of the film? A two minute elevator pitch is great but a solid 90+ minute story is infinitely better.
It probably seems like I bagged on the writing a bit before, right? The reason it might seem that way is because I tend to focus on the writing (given my background) and because the screenwriter is what prompted me to consider this film. So, the screenwriter of American Ultra is Max Landis. Let me be perfectly clear: I don’t know the guy. I have never met him before. I don’t follow him on any social media site. And any opinion I have of him is completely informed and based upon interviews and social media retweeted/tumbled/etc. by someone else. If you want to get a glimpse of that, Google him yourself.
Now, I really liked his last major screenwriting project (that was actually made because, with my limited understanding of Hollywood, a few of his scripts have probably never seen the light of day much less actually created) Chronicle. Again, another solid elevator pitch. Three friends find this thing in the woods and develop super powers. Yeah, sounds cool. I’d go see that. However, that is just the weird add on because the core of the film is really the story of three friends from very different backgrounds/situations growing up and figuring out who they are and what they want out of life. Might not be the best elevator pitch, but it is a relateable, universal story. The whole superpower thing just makes it more interesting and gives it an edge. In comparison, the underlying story of American Ultra, slacker trying to get the guts to marry his girlfriend, is not quite as good because the end goal is too easy with the resolution being kind of unearned. Why? Well, simply because the slacker in question is not really trying to be or do anything other than the girl and has no real moment of change. Yeah, he finally goes and saves her from the CIA at the end, but 1. it felt too easy, 2. already had the skills built into him so no real development of abilities, and 3. for Mike saving the girl was the endgame. He would have seemingly been content to go back to working at the corner store and smoking pot for the rest of his life.
Anyhow, the reason I was focused on this film in particular is because of Landis’s criticism during the opening weekend of the film. Once more, you can Google it yourself, but essentially he was lamenting about the American movie going audience concerning their tastes. He could not understand how an original [emphasis mine] movie with two high caliber stars could do so poorly in theaters. His guess was that the current public is only interested in superhero movies or sequels. Now, I agree that there is definitely a deluge of superhero films, sequels, and movies with built in franchises and a severe lack of original IP. However, you don’t get brownie points for just being original. You actually need to deliver a wanted, quality product.
During the week leading up to the release of the film, a few people who had seen an early release or screening were hyping up the film as usually happens. Looking back, on the other hand, I noticed that almost all the positive praise was concerning the fact that the film was an original movie. Honestly, that was almost all that was positively said on social media (maybe I follow the wrong people). Not much was said about the story, acting, cinematography, style, humor, characters, etc. It was about how they were glad there was an original film competing against the sequels. Which, once more, is great that original films can still get made, but if it does not do well (and if you have only had one prior ‘success’) maybe the audience is not the issue.
Thus endeth today’s lesson.
(As an aside for the sake of discussion, maybe I am in the wrong here (though box office numbers and criticisms do not suggest it) and this will end up being a sleeper hit or cult movie. What do you think? Tell me below.)