(3 stars our of 4)

Time now for “back to school”, words that can still strike a chord of icy anxiety in even the most stalwart adults.  It sounds euphemistic in the same way “Big Brother is watching” does.  It seems to conceal something awful, although I suppose that would depend on your relationship to authority, which in my case has been a tenuous, if fitfully troubled peace.

“American Ultra”, starring Jessie Eisenberg and Kiristin Stewart is the second film from Iranian-British director Nima Nourizadeh.  Like his first, the epic party/found footage hybrid “Project X”, this film also traffics in the fantasies of American youth – which by extension implies the youth of much of the world.  And whether they involve throwing the craziest High School party ever or murdering CIA goons sent to bum you out, pop-culture fantasies of youth tend to take orbit around a figure of (subtext: parental) authority.  

Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, employed as a convenience store clerk and living as a stoner cliché.  He nervously contemplates proposing to his girlfriend Phoebe, played by a mildly against-type Kristin Stewart, and dreamily doodles Atomic Ape, his idea for a comic book character.  His anxiety attacks keep him from being able to leave town.  He is, in short, one of those cinematic figures of arrested development that could probably be played well by a “Meatballs” era Bill Murray.  The modern filmgoer has been bred to root for such cases for generations now.

 

 

Often, they prove extraordinary in some way.  Mike does not diverge.  It happens that he is a product of the government’s Ultra program.  Like his cinematic forebear Jason Bourne, he discovers that he has been programmed with a number of helpful spy skills, like turning a Cup-of-Noodles into a weapon or speaking Mandarin.  And also like in the Bourne series, the villains are all shadowy government types, which in popular culture are always either killing machines or fodder.  
If all of that sounds a bit stereotypical, it is.  But Nourizadeh, who honed his skills directing music videos, brings a sense of style that feels almost antithetical to most summer blockbusters.  Where they are slick and glossy, “American Ultra” feels sort of gonzo.  

For one, it takes place in Liman, West Virginia rather than the East Coast Metropolises of Bourne or the Marvel films.  The town itself feels as if it is all trailers, convenience stores and grocery marts, all in neglect or disrepair.  The color palate is, and I mean this in a good way, attractively ugly.  It even contains an authentically amateurish looking piece of animation over the credits, all of which lend it a hazy, analog feel.   

But what do you get when you reverse engineer its fantasy of a stoner discovering that his latent talent is killing bad guys?  A hopeful little nugget of anti-authoritarian nose-thumbing for the masses, all for only the price of a matinee.

It’s a point the movie makes without much subtlety during a brief conversation between Mike and one of the psychotic goons sent to track him, played by a scenery-chewing Walter Goggins.  
“Who do you work for?” the baddie asks.
“No one,” Mike replies after a minute.
“That must be nice.”

Yes, the audience is invited to agree, it must.  The culture industry invariably provides for our fantasy fulfillment, or at least it lets us watch.
I should mention at this point that part of the poignancy of “back to school” for yours truly is that I’m not just attending classes, I’m teaching one.  So now I have some authority, even if it is a witheringly small amount.  My discomfort with that position might even help to explain why I enjoyed this movie so much.
Onetime Bozemanite Bill Pullman shows up as the bad guys’ boss, the film’s final figure of scenery-chewing authority.  An unrelated factoid: he also taught at MSU for a period.  After Pullman’s character has his say, the movie concludes as these fantasies often do: the misfit manchild is absorbed into the authority because it turns out that his newfound talent is in fact a marketable commodity.  The nose-thumbing ceases.  Jesse Eisenberg’s stoner burnout even (SPOILER) gets a haircut before the credits roll.  

Which reminds me that I could use a haircut as well.  

The appeal of fantasies like “American Ultra” can be summed up as the inverse of Spiderman’s mantra: with no power comes no responsibility.  But what does it mean that even these fantasies almost always end with the character acquiring responsibility and getting an adult job?  Why, even in our late-summer dreams, do we have to go “back to school?”

Still, “American Ultra” succeeds at diverting, and I can personally attest that if you are trying to put off designing your lesson plans, this film is entirely capable of being put to that task.

Enjoy what is left of your summer, children, and gather while ye can what rosebuds ye may.

 

Editor's Note: Joseph Shelton is a freelance writer working on his Masters in English Literature at Montana State University.  The only thing better than watching movies, he avers, is arguing about them with like- or unlike-minded folks; drop him a line and tell him just how wrong he is.