Sometimes you watch a movie and you just want to praise the casting director. There’s a lot to enjoy in American Ultra, the low-key wackjob action comedy that you definitely didn’t see this weekend. But the central fun of the movie is how many good actors keep popping up. Some of them play against type: You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Connie Britton — Mrs. Coach, Nashville whatever — scream “Who’s the bitch now, f—er!” mid-strangle. And some of them just play their type: Bill Pullman as a shady government guy, Walton Goggins as a kooky crim, Tony Hale as the nervous guy in a suit. (Lavell Crawford from Breaking Bad shows up briefly: I choose to believe he’s still playing Huell from Breaking Bad.)
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart play the leads. They’re fine. The movie can’t decide whether to play their romance as a stoned Near Dark or a dummy Thin Man. (This is not the worst problem for a movie to have.) But American Ultra belongs to Topher Grace. He plays Adrian Yates, a CIA yes-man looking to make a big move by eliminating Eisenberg, a government super-assassin with amnesia.
This is exactly what every CIA bad guy tries to do in every Bourne movie, and part of the joke around Grace’s performance is that you think he’s playing one of those guys — Brian Cox or Chris Cooper, David Straithairn or Edward Norton, anyone in a Bourne movie who ever uses the words “terminate” and “asset” in the same sentence. But as the movie spirals out of control, you realize that Grace is up to something funnier: He’s playing the only man on Earth who thinks Edward Norton is the good guy in Bourne Legacy.
Most of Grace’s best lines are unprintable on this family website; suffice it to say, nobody has ever insulted Connie Britton with more gleeful vulgarity. There was a time, in his later ’70s Show years, when Hollywood tried out the idea of Grace as a lovable nerd. In Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! he’s the normal hometown best friend versus Josh Duhamel’s Josh Duhamel. In Good Company cast him as a business-school jackass with a redemption arc: Learning to be personal and emotional and more Dennis Quaid-y.
This was entirely reasonable in the context of the moment. I don’t know anybody who talks about That ’70s Show as great TV, but everyone of a certain age watched at least 50 episodes, and so everyone remembers young Topher Grace as Eric Forman, protagonist everykid who the show could cast variously as a sardonic know-it-all and a noble-melancholic romantic. (He was Chandler and Ross, and everyone else was Joey.)
But the big screen does weird things to what works on the small screen. In movies, the best role Grace ever had was sadly in Spider-Man 3. By all accounts, Venom got force-wedged into that movie by production mandate. (“Kids love Venom!” is something horrible corporate people have been screaming at frustrated creative people for 27 years now.) Still, the movie has a bright idea: Turn Eddie Brock into Peter Parker’s Tyler Durden. Grace is Tobey Maguire plus hair product plus ludicrous overconfidence plus spraytan plus dating Bryce Dallas Howard. The movie quickly squanders that idea the way it squanders everything, but it works for a little while.
Grace was already playing around with whatever his image used to be. Actually, his best movie role was probably As Himself: In Ocean’s Eleven as a gasbag actor among gasbag actors, winning a round of poker by proudly flourishing a flush that definitely isn’t a flush. (“All red!”) In Ocean’s Twelve, he’s Grace-in-breakdown, talking about “quitting the show” and how he “totally phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie.” There’s a self-awareness to Grace: It read as endearing on television, but in movies it reads more nefarious, like he insists he’s the smartest guy in the room.
Grace receded after that. He had a starring role in Take Me Home Tonight, a movie that spent four years in unreleased purgatory and is best known now (if at all) as the movie where Chris Pratt met Anna Faris. Grace is a lovable loser type there, too — specifically, a lovable loser MIT Graduate, the Humblebrag of lovable losers. There’s early evidence of his American Ultra turn: A psycho in Predators, one of several dozen Important Men In Suits in Too Big To Fail. Interstellar cast him as furniture, which makes his turn in American Ultra feel all the more revelatory: It’s like he’s been waiting years to play someone so gloriously sniveling.
True Topherheads know that Grace spent his off-years working on a very special project: A re-edited version of the Star Wars prequels, with all three terrible movies edited down into one not-too-bad-sounding 85-minute movie sans space politics and Jake Lloyd.
This project offers a helpful Rosetta Stone decode matrix for understanding Bad Guy Grace. In the early scenes of Good Company and in all of American Ultra, he’s the classic Consultant archetype: The smart guy who doesn’t just lack experience, but who actually prides himself on his lack of experience, as if the big problem with most people is that they’re too old and too knowledgeable and too unwilling to shake things up a little bit. So it feels ineffably Grace to make a side project out of re-editing three bad-but-popular movies into one slightly-better-sounding movie. (Bad Guy Grace is the ultimate “fixed that for you” Corporate Guy, taking credit for rescuing a project he was barely involved in: In a more cynical world, he’d be the lead in Steve Jobs.)
Grace has an interesting couple of projects coming up, which seem (in theory) designed to steer further into this heel turn. In Truth, he’s playing an ambitious young reporter whose work indirectly leads to the fall of national monument Dan Rather (played by national monument Robert Redford.) He’s in the cast of War Machine, Brad Pitt’s Afghanistan satire — he’s apparently playing the press advisor to Pitt’s golden-god general. No joke, you can read American Ultra as an Afghanistan satire: An attempt by the government to kill one man spirals into a full-fledged city assault, complete with collateral damage and black sites and kill orders granted to off-the-books assassins. Is Mr. Robot hiring? Does it need another shady crazy-eyed corporate guy? American Ultra promises a legit Second Act for Grace: The “nice guy” as megalomaniacal supervillain.