In Defense of American Ultra, An Anxious Film That Deserves a Little More Love Despite Being a Little Fucked Up (And Don’t We All)

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American Ultra is a movie that no one saw, and most who did see it, hated it – or at least made a weird face at it. It tanked at the box office and received generally negative reviews. I, however, found it strangely endearing, enough so to write this review like an entire year after its release. Spoilers ensue.

The film an exploration of anxiety and relationships. Despite the messy plot and chaotic tone, the emotional beats resonate and carry the film further than most reviews have given it credit for.

The plot follows burnout stoner Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) throughout the course of a weekend as he tries to find the right time to propose to his girlfriend Phoebe (Kirsten Stewart) – only to discover that he’s had his memory erased and is actually CIA sleeper agent who, upon activation, has the ability to kill people in grisliest of manners. For a bunch of complicated reasons, the CIA now wants him dead, and he has to run for his life while trying to understand what exactly he is running from.

The aforementioned emotional core that carries the film, despite its rough edges, is Mike and Phoebe’s relationship. Eisenberg and Stewart have perfect chemistry, and their lax demeanors fulfill Mike’s description of the two as the “perfect fucked up couple.”

But this film isn’t a Mike & Phoebe vs. The World kind of scenario. As it turns out, the film pits the two against each other as they learn each other’s secrets and decide whether they still want to move forward with their relationship despite hurting and hiding from one another.

Regular questions couples might encounter on the verge of taking the “next step” in their relationship – Is this for real? Do I really know you? Am I holding you back? Do you really love me? Are you the “One”? – are amplified by the presence of anxiety. Or, in the film’s case, the presence of a CIA operative busting in one day and telling you everything about your life is a lie.

It’s what makes the stoner-spy-thriller mash-up such a great vehicle for to explore this kind of character struggle. A stoner’s conspiracy-addled paranoia about things being not as they seem provides the perfect avenue to explore love, trust, fear, and commitment in relationships.

As many reviews have pointed out, the execution is not perfect. While I think the abrasive tone is intentional, it doesn’t quite hit the balance needed for something accessible to a broader audience (which is fine for a film, but not fine for a film that is expected to make money). Sometimes the metaphors are heavy handed, and secondary characters are handled with less grace than they could be (not that I disagree that the corporate world sucks the life out of us creative types, man) (and that’s a graceful way of saying I actually hated some of the secondary characters, the whole concept of the assassins was handled poorly).

But I think it’s worth noting where the execution actually does work, because the film did a surprisingly good job at resonating with some of my own experiences, leading me to discover one of the most (and few) positive reviews of the film entitled “The movie “American Ultra” helped me understand my anxiety, and I feel like I can start feeling better about myself now,” which I think is pretty neat for a movie with 43% score on Rotten Tomatoes. 

The movie’s strength is that each plot point syncs up with emotional beats in Mike and Phoebe’s relationship. If Mike’s main objective is to propose to Phoebe – everything else that happens in the film becomes a metaphorical obstacle for him to overcome in his own internal struggle to get there. Am I good enough for her? Am I capable of not fucking this up? It’s why all the action sequences are so fucking brutal and don’t pan away from the ugliness of conflict – confronting one’s own fears and insecurities is stressful, exhausting, and doesn’t leave anyone unscathed.

Sometimes, it’s easier to reject someone before they can reject you. At one point, Phoebe is kidnapped, but not before Mike yells, “Get away from me!” when some uncomfortable truths about her are revealed. It’s almost as if he summoned her kidnapper in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for type moment. He then has to determine not only how to get her back, but whether he even wants her back in the first place. His task is not simply to rescue her, but to do the work needed to navigate their new relationship dynamics and move forward.

It’s why the film’s climax takes place at a small town department store called Max Goods. Before he rescues her, he speaks to her over the store’s intercom: “Everything is going to be okay. I mean, not like perfect, but better. We’ll probably have to get a new house, and also cars, but I’m coming to get you, and this will all be over, soon-ish.” He then takes out a swath of assassins using household objects and office supplies – because sometimes growing up and learning how to use those things feels like a fucking battle.

But this isn’t a “slacker kids learn to grow up and get a job” story either. Growing up, learning how to be responsible, and developing coping mechanisms or seeking treatment for mental illness doesn’t have to involve conforming to societal expectations. There’s a critique of university as an incubator of stress, and corporate culture as demeaning, especially to women – Phoebe’s storyline demonstrates this pretty clearly. While she first appears as the longsuffering “cool girlfriend,” whose love for Mike seemingly trumps everything else – we find out she has her own motivations for running away with her “stoner boyfriend.” Turns out, climbing the corporate ladder as a woman just really fucking sucks and she wanted out. Upon confronting her former employer, who takes the form of the villain, she gets bombarded with comments about her appearance, and how “unprofessional” she’s become. Later, she admits to Mike that he was her form of escape from that life.

It’s tough feeling like you don’t fit in. It’s even tougher to pretend that you do.

American Ultra is not a perfect movie, but it’s one that will certainly find a cult following among deeply anxious white millennial kids and perhaps others who struggle with mental health and feel like they’re too fucked up to make a relationship work. The film doesn’t offer any clear answers, but acknowledges that relationships affected by mental health are messy and full of struggle, and that sometimes, despite all the obstacles, and maybe even because of them, it is possible to develop the skills and tools needed to choose love over fear.

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