Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are shuffling into theaters this weekend with American Ultra, a weird little movie that grafts stoner lethargy onto clandestine government intelligence operations. This is the kind of late summer lark where action sequences are cushioned with clouds of smoke and bad guys are killed by bullets ricocheting off of frying pans: it's completely frivolous in the best sense of the word. It's not getting great reviews, but its status as a showcase for two of the best young American actors working justifies its existence. Eisenberg takes the edge off his trademark anxious energy with the help of numerous prop joints; Stewart gets to put an unexpected spin on the "damsel in distress" role she suffered through c. the Twilight Saga.
It's not the first time they've worked together in a shaggy, smoked-out comedy. Eisenberg and Stewart first teamed up for Adventureland, a humble '80s coming-of-age movie released in 2009 that's ambled its way toward the designation of "cult classic." It's studded with sparkling minor appearances by actors like Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig; the music, curated by veteran indie band Yo La Tengo, is pitch perfect; it's the kind of movie you watch with your friends on a hungover undergrad Sunday morning when you're not quite ready to leave each other's company. Eisenberg and Stewart carry it with performances that are touching, complex, and earned. They feel like versions of people you know.
Eisenberg and Stewart are an unpredictable, talented pair
A lot has changed for both performers in the six years between working together. Eisenberg was feted as a generational talent for his work in The Social Network one year later, only to become a surprisingly bankable star and a credible choice to play Lex Luthor; Stewart lurched and lip-bit her way through Twilight movies that printed money before journeying into the wilderness and emerging an intense, honest performer with singular taste. They make for an unpredictable and talented pair, and they're going to continue to evolve and cross paths over the next decade. Let's evaluate their progress in the years separating Adventureland and American Ultra on a number of distinct fronts.
We can chalk up Stewart's early box office dominance to the performance of her Twilight movies, as well as that of Snow White and the Huntsman. Those five movies all made more money than Eisenberg's highest-grossing movie, 2011's animated comedy Rio, and three of the four Twilight movies made double Rio's total. (The only one that didn't, 2011's Breaking Dawn - Part 1, fell just short.) Eisenberg has racked up a series of mid-tier hits highlighted by movies like Zombieland and 2013's street magic thriller Now You See Me, but he hasn't yet made anything with Twilight-level box office potential. (That should change next year, when he'll appear in both a Now You See Me sequel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.) Stewart's total plummeted in 2013 because she didn't release a movie that year — an unofficial hiatus likely prompted by her infidelity scandal a year earlier — and her 2014 was marked by well-received but small independent films like Clouds of Sils Maria and Still Alice. American Ultra will become her first movie of 2015, so that space is empty too.
From a critical perspective, Stewart takes a few knocks thanks to the execrable reputation of the Twilight series. Those movies pin down her Rotten Tomatoes averages from 2009 to 2011, and then something unexpected happens: she overtakes her more feted male counterpart in 2012 and 2014, the years in which she's released new movies post-Twilight. Her victory in 2012 isn't worth much, as both she and Eisenberg appear in a handful of mediocre movies; you could chalk her win up to margin of error. But her work in 2014 is definitively superior, and even within those higher-quality movies she earns special mention for the strength of her work. (She became the first American actress to win a César, France's national film award, for her performance in Clouds of Sils Maria.) Eisenberg chugs along with decent work in every year studied save 2012, but his high 2015 score is dependent on the strength of one movie, The End of the Tour.
When it comes to public interest, Stewart grounds Eisenberg into a fine powder. It turns out the combination of Twilight and tabloids makes for Google Trends domination. Stewart's relationship with co-star Robert Pattinson amplified the series' infamy and generated tons of interest in its own right, and the 2012 revelation of her affair with Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders ignited an emotional powder keg. Her relationships with both Pattinson and Sanders are history now, but the media has maintained interest in her personal life, particularly her ambiguous sexuality. Eisenberg has to compare visiting Comic-Con to "some kind of genocide" to earn even a fraction of the attention dumped on Stewart. He could be absorbed into the superhero media machine as early as this fall, but he's managed to maintain a low profile thus far.
Their careers are eclectic, curious, and flawed in interesting ways
Looking at the whole of their last half-decade of work, it's clear that Eisenberg and Stewart have managed to strike balances most young actors and actresses struggle to find. They've dipped their toes into the world of mega-franchises without marginalizing their more vital and distinct work; they've found their way into movies that have achieved modest success and acclaim when the industry is more polarized than ever; they've assembled filmographies that are eclectic, curious, and flawed in intriguing ways. American Ultra might not make a lasting impression on either actor, but it's a pleasure to watch them work together again. I hope I have reason to evaluate the work they've yet to do sometime in the future. (And if you're interested in playing with the data that made up the graphs above, you can do so below.)