'Stuber' Review: Five-Star Promise, Two-Star Effort
Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani are stellar in this new action-comedy, but the ride they share is less than satisfactory.
It doesn’t matter that I found Stuber unsatisfying, because I am watching it the next chance I get. Even though this swing-and-mostly-miss comedy didn’t have me howling like I’d hoped, I’m looking forward to rewatching it six months from now, when it’s two in the morning and I cool down from a Destiny 2 marathon to drunk watch charismatic Asian-American actors smack each other with baseball bats while I giggle myself to sleep.
Despite the dream team of Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani, Stuber never quite arrives at its promised destination. With haphazard action direction and a script that cares too much about rigid structure than organic rhythm or its characters, Stuber is at best an amusing distraction with some fun twists. At worst, it’s something to kill time until your actual Uber arrives.
Out in theaters July 12, and the first R-rated movie from Disney-owned 20th Century Fox, Stuber from director Michael Dowse (of the sublime Goon) is the collision course of Vic (Bautista), an aging hero detective on the hunt for Teijo (Iko Uwais), a drug lord who killed his partner; and Stu (Nanjiani), a beta male in a not-so-platonic relationship with his BFF, Becca (Betty Gilpin). When LASIK surgery leaves Vic temporarily blinded, he kidnaps Stu on his Uber route to follow Teijo, which keeps Stu from another chance with Becca.
A gig economy spin on buddy Wunzas (Stuber: “Wunza” a cop, one’s a driver…) succeeds solely on the strengths of its stars. Bautista and Nanjiani are an dynamic pair not seen since Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, though there’s a galaxy’s difference of energies between them. Bautista, whose shoulder width and screen presence are the size of two Mack trucks, compliments Nanjiani, whose soft spine as Stu never borders on annoying or useless.
The film flirts with some truly daring ideas about toxic masculinity through the differences in Stu and Vic. Vic, an archetypical Die Hard-esque detective with a tragic origin story, is compelled to rethink his lot in life through Stu, an unlikely person to ever have make a profound impact on Vic. If there’s one shining element in the script it’s in the relationship of Vic and Stu, two characters who really do grow and learn from each other despite their wildly divergent lives.
My favorite gag emblematic of this pairing is when Stu, hoping to stop Vic from punching a perp for the 800th time, cleverly threatens the perp with bad Ryan Gosling tweets on his timeline. It’s a joke exclusively for Film Twitter, but only Nanjiani and Bautista have the charisma to pull it off. If only the rest of Stuber gelled as well as these two do. (Side note: If you ever want me to rat, just take my phone and tweet from my account, “I didn’t really get Only God Forgives.”)
There really is too much talent in Stuber that it’s baffling when the film flubs on the potential. Natalie Morales, Karen Gillan, and Mira Sorvino round out this killer ensemble, yet the film never seizes upon the bottled lightning of pairing Gillan and Bautista or Morales and Nanjiani. Are we really to wait for another movie before we get the Gillan/Bautista vehicle we deserve?
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is in Gilpin, Stu’s wine drunk bombshell friend with whom he has slept with one (1) time. And it’s through no fault of Gilpin that Becca is such a dud. Fans of American Gods and Netflix’s GLOW knows what Gilpin’s capable of, but Stuber’s script renders her a mere gear in the plot rather than a realized, dimensional character, save for a mature decision between Becca and Stu at the end of the film (no spoilers) that, I hope, marks a radical shift in how male-dominated comedies frame attractive female leads.
The jokes of Stuber, which are inoffensive but never toothless, flip flop between Jackass slapstick (a bunch of hits Bautista and Nanjiani take look legitimately brutal) and conversational one-liners. There’s a massive disparity that Stuber almost feels like two different movies. Meanwhile, with every one-liner, I couldn’t shake off a recent piece by Mel Magazine that speculated, through Anchorman, on the evolution of the genre and how meme culture evaporated the studio comedy that came locked and loaded with quotable lines. It’s not that movies need quotable lines, but we love reciting Ghostbusters and Anchorman because its characters still feel alive. Stuber doesn’t care about its characters enough to give them life beyond what the plot demands.
If Stuber came out eleven summers ago, it probably would have made Pineapple Express sweat bullets. It has all the same winning ingredients — a killer cast, witty dialogue, novel but dizzying action, and airtight plotting — but the total combination never amounts to a satisfying whole. It’s like Stuber has been stuck in L.A. traffic while comedies evolved past jokes about playing Styx on an iPod. (Stu actually uses an iPod Mini, another “Star-Lord has a Zune” gag.)
For all its faults, I’m excited to watch Stuber again. I want more comedies about flawed, anxious human beings who happen to be played by brilliant Asian-American performers. I want more mainstream comedies where the “guy gets the girl” is not a fulfilling goal and instead gets actively rejected by its protagonists. I want movies that tackle the toxic masculinity of alpha male action heroes. Stuber has all of that, and though it’s a two-star effort, I still enjoyed the ride.
Stuber arrives in theaters on July 12.