Last time we watched this unlikely duo, winsome Jesse Eisenberg paired with extra-winsome Kristen Stewart, it was the beautiful coming-of-age Adventureland, a movie that made their impossible mating seem almost real. In it Eisenberg played a preppy pot-smoking dork to Stewart’s emotionally bruised mystery girl. How he won her over was sheer soulful persistence, erasing any vestiges of cool-guy distance. They were kids, after all, with a tough world to conquer.
American Ultra is a very different movie. Though pitched as a stoner-action film, it’s actually closer to broad satire, more like Scary Movie than Pineapple Express, and the humor lies in blood-soaked excesses interrupted by tender feelings. This time the odd coupling works even better, mainly because Stewart is magnificent. Her dogged underplaying — okay, sometimes she zombies through roles — makes her emotional emergence feel like surprise. We root for them, no matter how drenched in stage blood they become.
Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a CIA super-spy programmed to believe he is a small-town Virginia slacker who, for some odd reason, vomits if he tries to leave town. Stewart is his girlfriend, and the action begins when Victoria (Connie Britton) shows up with the unsafe words that reactivate Mike just as teams of hit men show up, too.
Obviously, the setup is an American Ultra-cliché (Matt Damon’s Bourne is the most obvious version), as are the hardware-store battle and the fireworks assault. Mike and Victoria rebel against a parade of weirdo cameos by the likes of John Leguizamo (pathetic doper) and Bill Pullman (government super-creep). To director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X), the CIA isn’t completely evil — it’s more like an armed Bobo the Clown that keeps bouncing back. Throughout the whole slapstick bloodbath, though, it is clearly Stewart who manages to turn the silly parody into something sweet; passive aggression becomes a moral victory. Funny and gory, this is a movie you don’t have to be a complete doper to enjoy. It probably helps, though.