Tone is a tricky thing when it comes to movies. You typically don’t think about it when a movie is playing it straight; as dramas are serious, comedies are funny, horror movies are scary, and so on.
But when you start mashing things up, tone becomes essential, like a high wire act where if you lean too much in one direction or the other, certain disaster awaits.
Such is the case with “American Ultra,” a sloppy mess of an action-comedy that wastes a killer premise by taking itself just a little too seriously.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike, an unassuming stoner who lives in a small town in West Virginia. Mike holds down a job as a clerk in a convenience store but doesn’t do much else other than smoke pot with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) and fend off the occasional crippling panic attack.
We learn pretty quickly that Mike, unbeknownst to himself, is a covert government agent with a wiped memory who gets activated when a mysterious woman (Connie Britton) enters his store.
All hell then breaks loose when snotty CIA middle manager Yates (Topher Grace) decides to eliminate Mike and Mike responds by becoming a chatty, paranoid killing machine.
This movie could have totally worked, but director Nima Nourizadeh (whose only previous movie credit is the teen party flick “Project X”), working from a script by Max Landis, seems reluctant to fully commit, and therefore “America Ultra” is never funny or stylish enough to make you care.
You can pull a movie like this off. Look no further than this year’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” or Eisenberg’s own “Zombieland”; you just have to be willing to be absurd, slick, and clever. “America Ultra” is instead glum, uneven, and riddled with plot holes.
The casting also brings this movie down a notch or two. Eisenberg is solid enough, Britton is fun playing against type and Tony Hale shines in a tiny role as a mousy CIA pencil pusher.
But John Leguizamo is sort of wasted as Mike’s goofy drug dealer and Walton Goggins is criminally wasted as the murderous goon Laugher. Goggins is one of the most loquacious character actors around, why saddle him with a part where his character hardly talks because he has his teeth busted out?
Grace is too twerpy and obnoxious to be a formidable bad guy and then there is Stewart. I always try to give her the benefit of the doubt, but like a Pinto stuck in second gear, she’s got one speed, and until she can find a part for a bland twentysomething who can barely seem to muster up the energy to care about anything she will be the albatross hanging around the neck of every movie she is in.
At one point, Eisenberg accuses her of being a terrible fake crier and I thought for a moment someone had messed up and we were seeing a moment of honesty in a behind-the-scenes outtake.
But as much as I would love to go on and on about Kristen Stewart ruining movies, I’ll just quit while I’m ahead, especially since “American Ultra” probably would have gone ahead and stumbled without her.
I think she should count that as a win.
“American Ultra” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use, and some sexual content.