In 1976, Martin Scorsese turned a vigilante taxi driver into a crime masterpiece.
But what if you turned that concept into a comedy, replacing the cab with an Uber?
That’s the premise of Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista’s new buddy-comedy action flick, which combines the name of its main character, Stu, with that of his vehicle, an Uber, to get the less than creative title “Stuber.” If that makes you chuckle, you might be in for a lighthearted ride. If that sounds forced, well, fasten your seat belts.
The story follows humble Uber driver Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), who is performing routine pickups and praying for five-star ratings across Los Angeles, while waiting for his longtime crush Becca (Betty Gilpin) to see him as more than just a friend.
Just when Becca breaks up with her boyfriend and offers Stu a potential shot, an aggressive LAPD detective named Vic (Dave Bautista) hops in the car and demands to drive him around the city to catch drug lord Oka Teijo (Iko Uwais), who murdered Vic’s partner.
Kumail Nanjiani is easily one the most gifted comic actors of our time. You’ll recall he also played an Uber driver in his breakout film “The Big Sick” (2017), which he wrote with wife Emily V. Gordon to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Earlier this summer, his glowing voice work propped up a lackluster “Men in Black: International” (2019).
In “Stuber,” we revel in his comedic timing and innate pathos once more, proving that few Hollywood screen actors are as immediately likable.
For the brutish cop, it’s hard to find a better specimen than Bautista, a D.C. native and former WWE champ charting a new career path like The Rock (“Jumanji”) and John Cena (“Trainwreck”). He started as the superhero sidekick Drax in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014), graduated to a Bond henchman in “Spectre” (2015) and stretched into sci-fi in “Blade Runner 2049” (2017). By now, Bautista has paid his dues, making his first leading role a welcome one, playing the polar opposite of Nanjiani.
Together, they make a fun buddy team. Nanjiani nervously wisecracks while Bautista grimaces, squinting through dilated eyes for the comedic effect of blurry rooms and mistaken identities. As they break down doors, you’ll instantly think of “Training Day” (2001), only Nanjiani is more of a fish out of water than Ethan Hawke and Bautista is more meatheaded than Denzel. The better comp is “Lethal Weapon” (1987) with Bautista as the Mel Gibson madman and Nanjiani as the reserved Danny Glover.
Unlike those films, “Stuber” lacks the screenwriting finesse of Shane Black or David Ayer being able to weave the witty banter into a believable crime plot that keeps us guessing. Instead, the snappy jokes try to disguise a predictable crime plot by writer Tripper Clancy, who penned Wolfgang Petersen’s “Four Against the Bank” (2016), and director Michael Dowse, who helmed the hockey comedy “Goon” (2011).
For starters, the whole setup of a cop seeking revenge for his dead partner is so cliché by now. We’ve seen it so many times that it’s almost laughable when a writer trots it out these days. Making matters worse is the characters’ suspicion that there is a mole operating inside the police force. Such a mystery is often compelling, but by the time the mastermind is ultimately revealed, you’ll see the twist coming from a mile away.
Mostly, the script relies on a ticking clock subplot: Can Stu complete the mission in time to get the girl? Such a “Damocles sword” could work if the love interest were given agency, but in this case, Becca does absolutely nothing except wait for him to come have sex with her. As she drunkenly FaceTimes him about the time they hooked up watching “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), it’s a friend-with-benefits scenario that starts cute but never elevates into anything meaningful. The result is a painful B-story.
Not only is the subplot lazy, it exposes an overall troublesome tone where the women either die, lie, wait for men to have sex with them or wait for men to save them. At one point, Bautista shouts at Nanjiani, “Quit crying like a little girl,” to which Nanjiani yells, “They gave birth to us! The future is female!” It might be comical in the moment, but it feels like lip service of forced feminism. All of the female stars — Karen Gillan as Vic’s ill-fated partner and Mira Sorvino as Vic’s boss — are cookie cutter templates.
The closest to a strong female character we get is Natalie Morales as Vic’s daughter Nicole, who invites her father to her art exhibit despite his “cats in the cradle” track record. She’s an interesting character, one we’d like to get to know better, but the script goes and ruins a good thing by having her unrealistically show up during the final shootout. Not only does she appear randomly but she immediately needs saving as the script devolves from the stuff of lazy deus ex machina to disappointing deus ex damsel.
This limp Act Three will cause many critics to pan the movie, but let’s face it, this is the type of movie that hack writers will decide to slam before they even see it. Don’t fall into that trap. “Stuber” isn’t all that bad; in fact, it’s actually quite funny in moments. To the film’s credit, it keeps things short and sweet — not a bad way to spend 90 minutes. Just don’t expect a 5-star Uber ride, or in this case, a 4-star film review.