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Stoner-action film 'American Ultra' sounds fun, but the critics just say no

Stoner-action film 'American Ultra' sounds fun, but the critics just say no
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in "American Ultra." (Alan Markfield / Lionsgate)

Like the many cautionary tales regarding recreational drug use, "American Ultra" fails to live up to its potential.

The stoner-action movie seems to have missed the mark with critics, earning it a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It stars Jesse Eisenberg as an anxiety-ridden store clerk, whose main concern is proposing to his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart), one day discovering he has a secret past (and skills) when that past comes to try to eliminate him.

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Though it is generally agreed that "American Ultra" has all the makings to be a hit -- starting from its premise and including its strong cast -- the film ultimately burns out before reaching its full high as a stoner comedy take on spy action movies.

"The notion of 'American Ultra' as a freewheeling stoner-centric action/espionage comedy with two of the sharpest young stars of the day seems pretty much a no-brainer," writes The Times' Mark Olsen. "The bummer of the movie turns out to be that it was made with little brains at all."

The film "turns out to be a disappointingly underdeveloped film that its makers, chiefly director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis, must have thought could coast by on a cool but half-baked idea."

Also disappointing, says Olsen, is that the film doesn't take advantage of potential comedic moments that are essentially built-in because of the film's premise.

Even "the idea of a stoner's inherent paranoia ... isn't used for much," writes Olsen. "If you're constantly nervous that everyone is looking at you suspiciously, imagine discovering everyone is,  in fact, after you."

Olsen also notes that "American Ultra" just doesn't live up to how it is being advertised.

"The movie being sold to audiences is bold and lively, the movie showing in theaters is something inert, needlessly mean, more harshly violent than funny and largely a waste of its two young stars," he says.

The New York Times' Neil Gunzlinger agrees that the film's marketing has been a bit misleading.

"Some of the many, many promotional spots for 'American Ultra' make it seem like more of a comedy than it is," writes Gunzlinger. "That's not said as a criticism, just a warning. If you go, expect a diverting summer action adventure with occasional laughs, not a diverting stoner comedy with occasional action."

That said, Gunzlinger did not have much else to add about the movie other than "a lot of ['American Ultra'] seems familiar, and Mr. Eisenberg and Ms. Stewart aren't stretched much."

This underutilization of the lead actors seems to be a product of "American Ultra's" eventual reliance on pointless violence, according to NPR's Scott Tobias, who admits the disconnect between the two facets of Eisenberg's character does earn some initial laughs.

"Once the marijuana smokes clears, however, 'American Ultra' loses that shred of novelty and becomes a glib, juvenile exercise in violence for its own sake, squandering the lived-in vibe between Eisenberg and his co-star, Kristen Stewart," he writes.

On top of that, the film features "a protagonist who represents nothing and stands for nothing, and a CIA that has no clear reason for starting the secret agent program or for ending it."

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"At best, the film functions as a shaggy-dog adventure, with [Eisenberg's] Mike and [Stewart's] Phoebe improvising their way through a situation that grows more absurd by the minute," says Tobias. "But for long stretches, Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) forget they're making a comedy at all and allow bloody, pointless mayhem to take over."

Todd McCarthy from the Hollywood Reporter sees it less as forgetfulness and more as a lack of inspiration, especially considering it only runs 95 minutes long.

McCarthy describes the film as "a genre mash that's mildly amusing until it can't think of anything else to do besides flop around in the deep end of conspicuous gore."

And while "there are enough amusingly dopey discussions, nutty characterizations and creatively spiced servings of violence to service viewers who will probably prefer to see this in the heady state favored by the lead couple," according to McCarthy, ultimately the "intermittently wacky [and] instantly forgettable high jinks" aren't enough.

"Even with its tight running time, 'American Ultra' starts spinning its wheels well before the climax," he says.

Which is unfortunate, because as Variety's Andrew Barker notes, "American Ultra" has so much in its favor from the outset.

"Full of clever ideas, bloody violence so cartoonish that it's almost cuddly, and an eminently likable leading pair ... the film has a lot going for it," Barker explains. But the film fails at bringing all of these elements together.

"What begins as a clever action-comedy ... devolves into a standard shoot-'em-up, with gore splashed around to distract us from the dearth of wit," says Sarah Stewart of the New York Post. "It's a missed opportunity."

Twitter: @tracycbrown

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