Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista are their typical superlative selves, which just barely saves an otherwise tedious high-concept cop comedy.
Michael Dowse’s Stuber is the rare high-concept comedy that feels a half-decade too late. An uneasy amalgamation of the sweet-natured raunch of a 2000s hard-R Apatow/Wain joint, gratuitous slapstick gore, odd couple rideshare riffs, and police brutality, there’s very little of Stuber that doesn’t feel disconnected from either the social climate or Hollywood ecosystem of 2019.
Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) is a hapless sporting goods store worker in love with his best friend, Becca (Betty Gilpin), and toiling under his fratty boss (American Vandal’s Jimmy Tatro), a product of nepotism who’s constantly hazing Stu. Strapped for cash and in danger of being kicked off Uber as a driver after a string of bad luck, he makes a last ditch effort to earn a five-star ride.
In jumps Vic (Dave Bautista), a hardass cop trying to stop a heroin trafficking conspiracy and avenge his partner killed in the line of duty by a ruthless dealer, Oka Tedja (Iko Uwais). It’s only icing on the cake that Vic’s only knowledge of Uber comes from his sculptor daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales), leading to a number of jokes about pool systems and confusion about how trips work.
There’s another wrinkle to Stuber’s condition, but it’s better expressed by his ridiculous aviators in ad images than a full explanation — other than to say he’s not at full performance. It strains credibility at the base level, but even the film seems to know that it’s a bit nonsensical. And if nothing else, Bautista has a healthy sense of humor about himself, between the glasses worn here and his thin-rimmed librarian spectacles in Blade Runner 2049.
There’s very little of Stuber that doesn’t feel disconnected from either the social climate or Hollywood ecosystem of 2019.
Tripper Clancy’s script ekes out a considerable amount of mileage out of elaborate sight gags and action beats – even as those are surrounded by a temperament that feels dislocated. In a year where the mere mention of police is a polarizing concept, it’s harder to be on board with a cop whose casual brutality is less a choice than an extension of his natural physique – and who rarely negotiates with those in his way. From the opening setpiece, a bleary foot chase where Vic unloads a clip into the melon of an anonymous baddie behind a couch and bats another into a wall with a safety deposit box, there’s a sense of unchecked violence here that feels strange for something billed so explicitly as a comedy.
For their lack of coverage, the footage sliced and diced into glib money shots, the action sequences are nonetheless immeasurably improved by the inclusion of actual performers. Bautista may have officially retired from wrestling, but he makes every new space his own ring as he pile drives drug dealers and deploys a clothesline with the same stopping power as a brick wall. Meanwhile, Indonesian action star Uwais compensates for thin characterization with sheer athleticism whether he’s pirouetting down multiple stories of a massive LA hotel or executing a series of grapples whose speed is only surpassed by their complexity.
Unmistakably similar to Pineapple Express in tone and its transition to action in favor of comedy in its latter half, Stuber would have been wise to take another lesson from that stoner odyssey and leave more things unexplained. The actual police procedural aspect is relatively flat long before it crawls to a climax with the requisite surprise betrayal. The memorable exception is a The Hollies-soundtracked gunfight in an animal hospital that ends in a morass of body fluids.
The comedy has a much higher rate, but it’s just as often stuck in a flux of eras as its wokeness is less affected pandering than a well-intentioned misunderstanding. Particularly when it comes to its aggressively heteronormative articulation of masculinity, Stuber feels like it knows the right answers but is dealing with characters who are necessarily slow to learn.
Nanjiani is fully in his comfort zone as the amiably neurotic Stu and provides some of the biggest laughs with his deadpan delivery. His character’s a bit of a doormat, but his need to appease is charismatic and his constant need to impress Becca goes a long way in justifying some of the more absurd stretches of the film. Bautista’s comedy absolutely lies in his physicality, but again it’s those moments that feel a bit queasy in how they often lead to violence.
But even if the journey feels distended in a way that feels at odds with its detail-heavy storytelling, Stuber is an innocuous ride – a relatively easy 90 minutes that will only seem unpleasant if you start thinking about how many stop signs that were blown right through.
Stuber pulls into theaters and offers you water and a mint Friday, July 12.
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