Despite Kumail Nanjiani’s quick-witted delivery, it’s a flat and monotonous blend of action and comedy
Stu is an Uber driver. Movies — and movie titles — have sprung from worse premises, and so now we have “Stuber,” a buddy action-comedy that stars Kumail Nanjiani as Stu and Dave Bautista as Vic, a belligerent L.A. cop he gets stuck with for a very noisy, very bloody 93 minutes. If only the results were half as elegantly stupid as that title, a portmanteau of two words joined intuitively by a shared vowel. The movie, directed by Michael Dowse (“Goon”) from a script by Tripper Clancy, is a much clunkier hybrid.
As with a lot of slam-bang ’80s-flavored comedies involving mismatched duos and haphazard attempts at law enforcement, it sounds promising enough on paper. You probably know Bautista as the hulking Drax the Destroyer from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and you may recall Nanjiani’s winning turn as another down-on-his-luck Uber driver in “The Big Sick.” “Stuber” does what movies like this usually do: It smashes its two leads together repeatedly like cymbals, in hopes that their vast differences in personality, emotional intelligence and body type will achieve something approaching a lively comic rhythm.
But the beats that ensue are mostly flat and monotonous — and not terribly funny, despite Nanjiani’s improvisational flair, his ability to find the spluttering poetry in every word of protest. Without the actor’s quick-witted delivery, Stu would be little more than a thin stereotype of beta-male passivity. When he isn’t getting picked on at the sporting-goods store where he works — or pining for his friend Becca (Betty Gilpin), who’s too busy dating sleazebags to notice him — Stu supplements his meager income as an Uber driver, a job that comes with humiliations of its own.
Due to several ride mishaps (and a few unambiguously racist passengers), Stu’s driver rating has taken a dip, and he desperately needs a five-star ride to keep his job. That makes him putty in the hands of his latest passenger, Vic (Bautista), a detective hellbent on avenging the murder of his partner (Karen Gillan) by a ruthless heroin dealer named Teijo (Indonesian star Iko Uwais). Unfortunately, due to a poorly timed Lasik operation, Vic has temporarily blurred vision and thus requires Stu to chauffeur him all over the L.A. area in pursuit of various leads.
It would have been more concise to say that “Stuber” plays like Michael Mann’s “Collateral” reconceived as a rideshare-app commercial, or perhaps as an accidental PSA about police brutality. Refreshing as it is to see Bautista in a lead role that doesn’t slather him in computer-generated body paint, his character is such a boorish bully, such a witless slab of unmodulated aggression, as to completely snuff out even the faintest glimmer of the actor’s charisma. It also dampens what little chemistry he and Nanjiani are able to achieve — barely enough of a spark, by my estimation, to power the electric vehicle that is the source of some of the movie’s better jokes.
That “Stuber” seems well aware of Vic’s awfulness somehow makes it worse. When the characters aren’t searching for clues at a male strip club or going on a tag-team killing spree at a veterinary clinic, they’re carrying on a strained, self-conscious argument about masculinity and their competing definitions thereof. Vic forces Stu to fire a gun for the first time, subjects him to all manner of eyewitness trauma and mocks him for not being man enough to pursue the woman he loves. Stu in turn assaults Vic with sporting equipment and accuses him of neglecting his sensitive artist daughter (Natalie Morales), which would admittedly carry more weight if the movie didn’t treat her with the same disregard.
Stu’s righteous pushback against Vic is meant to exonerate the movie, to reassure the audience that “Stuber” is itself a more sensitive and enlightened piece of summer programming than it appears. In truth, his presence doesn’t really rebuke Vic’s attitude so much as sanction it, granting the movie license to sink to the same level of crude, bludgeoning hostility. It’s not the clumsiness of the filmmaking that rankles so much as the hypocrisy.
OK, the clumsiness rankles too. Of the many poorly served talents here, including Gilpin and Mira Sorvino as Vic’s police captain, none is more wasted than Iko Uwais, who established himself in “The Raid: Redemption” and “The Raid 2” as one of the most exhilarating martial artists on the planet. He’s introduced in an action sequence so incoherently choreographed, photographed and edited that it practically amounts to an aesthetic crime, the equivalent of feeding Wagyu ribeye through a meat grinder. I kept hoping things would improve after that early nadir, but unfortunately, “Stuber” is as “Stuber” does.
Rating: R, for violence and language throughout, some sexual references and brief graphic nudity
When: Opens Friday
Where: Wide release
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes