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'American Ultra' review: One toke and a few sins over the line

Jesse Eisenbergand Kristen Stewart in

Jesse Eisenbergand Kristen Stewart in "American Ultra." Photo Credit: AP / Alan Markfield

Stoner comedies are funny. Action comedies are funny. So why aren't stoner action-comedies funny?

Not many have been made, so perhaps we don't have a representative sampling. In 2008, "Pineapple Express" featured Seth Rogen and James Franco as amiable bong-tokers who run afoul of a criminal gang. In "American Ultra," which arrives in theaters Friday, Jesse Eisenberg plays a pot-smoking slacker who discovers he's actually a trained assassin. Each movie gets its comedic mileage from the incongruous mix of mellow dudes and spasmodic violence.

That has potential for fun and fantasy. "American Ultra" casts Eisenberg, the twitchy actor who played Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network," as Mike Howell, a highly unlikely super-agent. He's a West Virginia convenience store clerk who draws comics (or just thinks about drawing them) and lives with his alt-culture girlfriend, Phoebe, played by a mostly sidelined Kristen Stewart. Together, they're happily going nowhere.

That changes when Mike is attacked by two thugs. Quicker than you can say "Special Ops," he reduces them to broken bones and splattered brains, but there are more coming. Over at CIA headquarters, Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton) has been keeping Mike's identity a secret -- even from him -- but now the power-hungry Agent Yates (Topher Grace) wants Mike dead. The stage is set for thrills and spills as our dweeby hero discovers his inner James Bond.

Except that's not what happens. After introducing John Leguizamo as a kooky drug dealer, "American Ultra" forgets about its marijuana motif and quickly turns dark. Mike's mental confusion is played for pathos, not laughs, and his love for Phoebe is oddly riddled with anguish. The violence is too ugly to be funny (sledgehammers, as a rule, do not equal comedy) and the complex narrative delves too deeply into the sad, cynical territory of a John Le Carré novel. These are such major problems that Eisenberg's miscasting -- he's too naturally high-strung to play a space-case -- seems like a minor point.

Directed with an ice-cold eye by Nima Nourizadeh ("Project X") and wildly overwritten by Max Landis (son of the film director John Landis), "American Ultra" seems confused, easily distracted and irrationally emotional. Only in that sense does this stoner movie live up to its theme.



You'd never know by its title that the new movie "American Ultra" is about a stoner/government agent who's marked for extermination. But it's not the first "American" movie in which the title gave little evidence regarding the plot.


AMERICAN MADNESS (1932). Though it sounds like it could be a horror movie, the "Madness" in Frank Capra's Depression-era classic refers to run on a bank after it's robbed of $100,000.

AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973). Thinking the name suggested an Italian movie or a feature on feet, Universal boss Ned Tanen wanted the movie retitled "Another Slow Night in Modesto." Director George Lucas refused, and somehow audiences figured out this was a 1962-set slice of life about college-bound buddies.

AMERICAN HOT WAX (1978). The title suggests a movie about spa treatments rather than a biography of 1950s DJ and rock music pioneer Alan Freed. Tim McIntire played Freed, but it was Fran Drescher as his wisecracking secretary and Jay Leno as his limo driver who went on to bigger things.

AMERICAN PIE (1999). This raunchy comedy about teens out to lose their virginity had nothing to do with Don McLean's hit record about the deaths of rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and "The Big Bopper" in a 1959 plane crash. However, those expecting to see an apple pie weren't disappointed.

-- Daniel Bubbeo


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