American Ultra rehashes post-Tarantino Nineties indie film cynicism of the sort that media shills enjoy when crowing about “the golden age of television.” Film actors Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart portray Mikey and Phoebe, two scraggly-haired stoner-lovers in flannel shirts. “We were the perfect f***ed-up couple,” Mikey narrates. “She was perfect. I was the f***-up.” He could also be describing the profane sweethearts of True Romance and Natural Born Killers, but a post-9/11 twist makes Mikey and Phoebe into CIA automatons who are programmed to kill — and who must be eliminated.
The TV-worthy, pyrite-era theme of American Ultra implies our government is so inhumane and duplicitous that, like Mikey and Phoebe, we can’t trust who we are as individuals, as lovers, as a nation. Hard-wired as super intellects and resourceful assassins, Mikey and Phoebe would be despicable if they weren’t also presented as innocents — sentimentalized Millennials who take no responsibility for their solipsism, immorality, and ignorance of history. It’s as tasteless as Brangelina’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
American Ultra ends with a cartoon promising Mikey and Phoebe’s further adventures (call it Zero Dark Twenties), but in fact it’s a cartoon all the way through. The brawling government agents (including Connie Britton and Topher Grace as Pentagon wonks waging their own gender rivalry that makes PC feminist and gay-male points) are conceived for Hollywood’s comic-book-movie market — perhaps the least politically conscious interchange of filmmakers and ticket-buyers ever.
The fun, supposedly, is in seeing how heinous and venal American political authorities and operatives can be, while Mikey and Phoebe remain essentially superior and smarter. The casting is a key aspect of this pandering. It’s difficult not to feel that Eisenberg and Stewart, stars of The Social Network and the vampire franchise Twilight, embrace these roles more avidly than they would take on characters who are GIs — military volunteerism being unfashionable in Hollywood (Stewart’s Camp X-Ray excepted).
Eisenberg ranks as the annoying nerd star of the era. He just recently appeared in The End of the Tour, playing an envious Rolling Stone writer assigned to profile the messianic novelist David Foster Wallace, but it’s Eisenberg — who could be the model neurotic protagonist of just about every indie film of the past 15 years — who should have been cast as DFW. His Mikey is a similar genius with a damaged psyche. That’s how Millennials see themselves, and American Ultra flatters them with the comparison while appealing to the lowest movie-going instincts.
#related#Mikey and Phoebe are brainwashed killing machines who bring blamelessness back to that most wearisome oxymoron — jokey sadism — bequeathed to film culture by Tarantino. It’s really tiring watching characters dodge Uzi bullets — and it’s surreal to sit among “critics” who laugh at such gimmicks as if the recognition was enjoyment itself because they can’t discern the difference!
In one of this year’s finest films, Thomas Cailley’s Love at First Fight, two French teenagers fall in love at co-ed boot camp, exhibiting in their neediness post-colonial Europe’s political and sexual confusion. American Ultra, however, is stuck in U.S. pop culture’s politically jejune heedless hedonism. Director Nima Nourizadeh’s sub–Tony Scott kinetics disrespect human vulnerability, falsifying the horror of violence, and Max Landis’ script dishonors the insight into youthful aspiration he showed in the visionary Chronicle. Their idea of America’s ultra-banality (Mikey dispatches opponents using a bag of frozen weiners, shovels, and a sledgehammer) climaxes with Mikey proposing to Phoebe while both are being tasered — all combined with groovy pop-music cues. If this was presented on TV, it would be considered great. That’s the saddest assessment I’ve made about a movie all year.
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Like our politics, Peter Bogdanovich’s later career repeats itself as farce. She’s Funny That Way treats his usual theme of human foible in the style of theatrical absurdity. This initially seemed uncharacteristic for the director of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon when done in What’s Up, Doc?, but it was in full bloom in Noises Off (a near masterpiece). Once again, Bogdanovich’s subject is the criss-crossed ambitions and passions of showbiz folk: Brooklyn hooker and aspiring actress Glow (Imogen Poots), whose client Arnold (Owen Wilson) is an adulterous but good-hearted director. “I care about women.” he says, trying to explain himself to his actress wife (Kathryn Hahn), who hankers for her co-star/ex-lover (Rhys Ifans).
Bogdanovich’s close-ups focus on emotional expression and emphasize the class aspects of each character’s yearning ambition — but without the arrogant clichés of Birdman. This sensitive insight is why Bogdanovich has been a mentor for two of the American Eccentrics, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, who co-executive-produced She’s Funny That Way. They both aspire to Bogdanovich’s personally imagined world of ambitious souls.
Bogdanovich understands the difference between complex relations and the obnoxious behavior Baumbach and Anderson too frequently indulge.
Anderson has been losing his touch lately, but Baumbach got surprisingly close in his recent Mistress America. Primarily a vehicle for the awkward, braying Greta Gerwig, it fortunately avoids Baumbach’s usual snark. A cuckoo segment at a parvenu’s estate resembles Bogdanovich most when Gerwig and company confess their longings (“If I could figure out my make-up, I’d be the most beautiful woman in the world”). Baumbach and Gerwig’s amateurish strain shows, but I’m man enough to admit that these hopeless hipsters finally do gravitate toward empathy.
Still, Bogdanovich does it better — with genuine charm — as when he features Poots’s guileless vulgarity. Bogdanovich understands the difference between complex relations and the obnoxious behavior Baumbach and Anderson too frequently indulge. Bogdanovich’s sex farce realizes the great lesson taught by his own role-model, Hollywood master Ernst Lubitsch: that farce is the perfect genre to depict adult sexual autonomy.
That lesson crosses class barriers (as proven in Lubitsch’s 1946 Cluny Brown – the film that inspires Bogdanovich), but it flummoxes Baumbach, Anderson, and other would-be sons of Lubitsch, including Woody Allen. Imagine a Woody Allen movie (say Mighty Aphrodite, Bullets over Broadway, or Another Woman) done right, and you’re close to the humanism and mirth that Bogdanovich distinctively achieves in She‘s Funny That Way.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.