When it comes to playing potheads, some actors are naturals. Jesse Eisenberg, for all his talents, is not one of them, as exemplified by American Ultra, a sort of stoner answer to The Bourne Identity. The movie sees someone get killed with a spoon and the CIA running a program to turn criminals and people with mental illness into highly proficient killers, and yet somehow the least believable element is that the neurotic, high-strung, intent Eisenberg is perpetually baked. The only aspect of his actorly high that feels genuine is the paranoia, which, within the auspices of the comedic action movie, is totally earned.
Eisenberg and his co-star Kristen Stewart are a lot more famous now than when they were first paired in Greg Mottola's nostalgic 2009 coming-of-age romance Adventureland. Stewart has weathered the insanity of the Twilight franchise and has been redefining her career with some ambitious, interesting choices. Eisenberg got an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as the quintessential millennial in The Social Network, and he'll next play Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice baddie Lex Luthor. But together, their charms remain rooted in their abiding unaffectedness. Some people come across as larger than life onscreen, but Eisenberg and Stewart don't. They're most eloquent in the beats between lines of dialogue, and they never seem sure what to do with their hair.
Eisenberg's innate twitchiness may run counter to the pleasant haze in which his character Mike Howell prefers to stay, but his scenes with Stewart have a pleasant solidity that just manages to hold American Ultra together. It's a very August sort of movie, the kind that benefits from low, lax expectations in the same way that last week's similarly secret agent–themed bit of fluff The Man from U.N.C.L.E. did, for the few who saw it. Mike is the product of a canceled CIA program intended to train super soldiers. His memory was wiped and he was parked in a rundown West Virginia town where he's been living a low-key life employed at a convenience store while trying to work his way up to proposing to his infinitely patient girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart).
Mike and Phoebe look more like slacker twins than a couple, uncombed and T-shirted, their biggest shared ambition to go to Hawaii for a vacation. Mike's the spacier of the two, even after he's been reactivated by Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), his old boss. When one of the assassins sent to eliminate Mike by agency go-getter Adrian Yates (Topher Grace, perpetually smarmy) yells, mid-chase, "Wait!" Mike...stops and turns around.
The movie, which was directed by Project X's Nima Nourizadeh and written by Chronicle's Max Landis, never really gets the timing of bits like this, which should be funnier, down right, though they certainly get bloodier, carnage unfolding in the town jail, the den of the local drug dealer (John Leguizamo), and the supermarket. The action's just fine, building up to one flashy long take featuring Walton Goggins as a killer named Laugher, but the sight of Britton primly wielding an assault rifle is ultimately more rewarding than the choreography.
American Ultra is loose and lazy, even for comedy so deliberately wacky. Leguizamo's character is a caricature, the CIA plot is haphazardly explained and nonsensical, and the pacing overall is herky-jerky. But as a love story, the movie has a shabby but striking sweetness.
What initially looks like a typical setup for a couple in a comedy like this — as one character puts it, Phoebe seems to serve as Mike's girlfriend, mother, and landlord — is revealed to have a history and dynamic that goes much deeper. The two have little to their lives, but they've carved out a space of matching tattoos, records, omelets, comic book ideas, and cannabis for themselves that's a tangible, touching oasis. The film may not aim for much, but it's further evidence that Eisenberg and Stewart are two actors who work very well together, something no government plot or stoner gags can obscure.