‘American Ultra’
Director:
Nima Nourizadeh
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

“American Ultra” is what could be called a “theoretical movie.” It certainly sounds like a good thing, and it has a talented cast that is uniformly good in it. The hook is that Jesse Eisenberg — gentle, shy and here a stoner — kills people. He’s Mike, a burner in small town Louisiana who works at a convenience store and lives with Kristen Stewart’s Phoebe, his adoring, patient, also perpetually high girlfriend. He’s also, unbeknownst to himself, a sleeper agent for the CIA, a victim of the kind of program that birthed Jason Bourne. He’s “awoken” right in time for assassins to come in and take him out, after a governmental pipsqueak (Topher Grace) whimsically decides to clean up a program that probably never should have existed in the first place.

And yet “American Ultra” mostly sits there on the screen. It’s like a good joke ruined by clumsy telling. The words are right, but the delivery is a shambles. (The script is by "It" screenwriter Max Landis, of "Chronicle.") Part of that is tone; part of that is a crisis of identity. It wants to be a silly, cartoonishy violent action-comedy in which Eisenberg lapses into leftfield asskickery, leaving in his wake heaps of gore, head trauma and (ulp) teeth trauma. It also wants to be a sensitive, serious look at a relationship starring two actors overqualified for low-rent silliness. It’s two movies, one a broad, bloody farce, one an “indie” drama that fumbles bringing the tomfoolery down to earth.

RELATED: Why Kristen Stewart is a great actress

Oddly, it’s the serious side that comes closer to working. The comedy vies for “Veep”-style cynicism; it even steals Tony Hale, playing a desk jockey unhappily put in charge of commanding drones from a tiny laptop. But pessimism is an art form, as is swearing. Grace spends most of the film just deploying f-bombs, inelegantly and artlessly. (“Veep,” like its father show “The Thick of It” and that show’s spin-off “In the Loop,” has a “swearing consultant” on staff. And even a wordsmith and primo imitator like Alan Moore, in one of his “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics, had trouble mimicking the creative profanity wielded by its greatest character, Malcolm Tucker.) Meanwhile, the attempts to take out Mike quickly prove repetitive. Perhaps it’s funny the first time Eisenberg, of all actors, takes out a squadron of trained killers with some quick moves, some involving a spoon. By the fifth iteration the gag has lost its appeal, because the gag was never more than “Jesse Eisenberg, of all people, has moves.”

Eisenberg, to his credit, doesn’t overplay the shtick (and he’s not bad at moves, though in certain cases quick editing helps). He’s trying to play a real character, not indulge in easy thrills. There’s not a ton of character to play, nor is there with Stewart’s Phoebe, who as written is little more than The Girlfriend (With a Pretty Guessable Secret). Stewart isn’t particularly funny — or she is, elsewhere, but not in this type of comedy. What she does, though, is bring a real depth of feeling, telegraphed in quiet, subtle fashion. She knows how to carry herself so that the tiniest fit of body language betrays her anguish and fear of the over-the-top shenanigans befalling them. Stewart and Eisenberg may help kill the comedy, but they elevate the secondhand drama into something more than was in the script. They don’t help it stick together as a cohesive unit, and technically they make it worse. But better their half of the film than the thumb-twiddling, hypothetically amusing lurch going on everywhere else.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge