There’s a gem of a great idea at the heart of Stuber. No, it’s not the Collateral-but-a-rideshare-comedy elevator pitch that features heavily in its marketing, but rather the ingenious idea to shove Kumail Nanjiani in the midst of an ‘80s buddy cop film.
Don’t let the title’s reference to everyone’s most/least favourite rideshare app fool you; Stuber is an ‘80s buddy cop film through and through. For better and for worse, admittedly; the prologue establishes its stakes through loose cannon cop Vic (Dave Bautista) witnessing the death of his partner (Karen Gillan) as they attempt to subdue notorious druglord Teijo (Iko Uwais). Vic fires bullets in crowded spaces and jumps off balconies with the no-holds-barred attitude defining that decade’s action films. All well and good, except that director Michael Dowse struggles to establish the tone early, failing to either (a) make his villains so nefarious so what we’re forced to root for the problematic – yes, it’s 2019, deal with it – behaviour of the protagonist or (b) signal the retro genre tone through comedic cues.
Thankfully, Nanjiani – as the titular Stuber (a portmanteau of Stu and…yeah, you get it) – is on hand to rescue proceedings. The comedian’s unique brand of observational humour, which implausibly yet successfully marries exasperation and deadpan, hasn’t always been effectively implemented by Hollywood directors. Think back to only a few weeks ago, and how his voicework was awkwardly incorporated into Men in Black: International. Here, though, the dynamic is perfectly geared to its stars’ strengths, with his running commentary on Vic’s anarchic attempts to avenge his partner’s death providing a steady stream of laughs.
While Dowse rights the ship in the film’s midsection, finding a comfortable balance between action and comedy that too often eludes his peers, it’s still achingly apparent that there was a much better film to be made here. I’m not going to gripe, as many of my contemporaries have, about Stuber’s action cinematography. Yeah, you’re not getting the perfectly framed and choreographed battles you might hope to see from a showdown between Bautista and Uwais, each trained fighters. But I’m not looking for a sequel to The Protector here; my first priority is regular laughs, which the film delivers.
What keeps Stuber from ever really hitting a solid groove is a combination of Dowse’s workmanlike direction and Bautista’s characterisation. Dowse and his team manage to find a good rhythm granted – something too often squandered in contemporary comedies – but along with the aforementioned tonal issues early on, it never really hits that escalating absurdity that a film like this calls for. It feels like a real missed opportunity, for example, that Vic’s LASIC-induced blindness never really builds into any big punchlines; he just knocks his head into things a couple times.
Vic, though: he’s an asshole. He’s not just an asshole because of his actions – waving his firearm around without compunction, torturing suspects, effectively kidnapping Stu – though they don’t, admittedly, help matters. No, he’s just gruff and unlikeable and aggressive in a way that is out of whack with the demands of the screenplay, especially when contrasted with Bautista’s consistently funny work in the MCU. Part of this is arguably necessitated by the storyline (you kind of need him to be a jerk for Stu to get swept up in the plot) but there’s surely a version of this film that addresses these requirements without turning the audience against one of its main characters.
Also, I really hope we’re approaching the expiry date of clumsily-telegraphed character arcs in comedies like this; Seinfeld had the right of it with their ‘no hugging, no learning’ rule. There’s some merit to the idea of Stu and Vic evolving their versions of masculinity after their shared ordeal (Vic softens, Stu hardens) but the execution is just off. Basically, Stu is an average dude – pining after his friend and business partner (Betty Gilpin), working two jobs to get ahead in life – and Tripper Clancy’s screenplay awkwardly (and perhaps unintentionally) positions him as a loser for these traits. A better film would’ve either established Stu’s character traits earlier – and more effectively – or simply focused on making fun of buddy cop tropes from within.
Still, all these problems don’t detract from the fact that there’s a simple joy in watching Nanjiani get to do his thing. He’s been lurking on the margins of mainstream comedies for years now, but with the success of The Big Sick he’s finally made his to way to the A-list (or close enough) and it’s great to see him at the helm of a studio comedy like this … even if the film itself is more good than great.