Dave Bautista has become quite a serious movie star over the years. While he does have some stinkers to his credit, his turns in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and “Blade Runner 2049” showed his capacity to handle the pressure of the silver screen. Another actor who has proven his merit in recent years is comedian Kumail Nanjiani who was the best part of “Men in Black International” and earned rave review in 2017’s “The Big Sick”. So, putting them together in a film actually doesn’t seem like a bad idea. That’s exactly what we got this weekend with the action comedy “Stuber”, Disney’s first R-rated film in six years being released under their newly acquired Fox banner. Comedy as a genre has been surprisingly underwhelming this year and was in dire need of a shot in the arm. Does “Stuber” provide the quality and laughs to turn the genre’s luck around in 2019? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Stuber”.
“Stuber” follows a cop named Vic (Dave Bautista) who is hot on the trail of a drug lord named Oka Teijo (Iko Uwais) who was responsible for the death of Vic’s partner. Due to his poor eyesight, Vic undergoes LASIK surgery but suddenly has an important tip land in his lap that could lead him to Teijo. Being unable to see properly, and thus unable to drive, Vic hails an Uber driver named Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), who some call Stuber because of his night job. Stu becomes Vic’s transportation for the day accompanying him through several deadly shootouts and experiences as they attempt to hunt down Teijo. Throughout the day Vic’s machismo and toxic masculinity clash with Stu’s more soft-spoken and emotional personality leading them to learn from each other how to be better and stronger humans. When Vic’s daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) becomes a potential target of Teijo’s Vic becomes even more obsessed with catching the criminal while Stu attempts to woo his recently single long-time crush Becca (Betty Gilpin).
“Stuber” embraces an intriguing modernized version of familiar concepts. The formula has been done before in numerous buddy cop movies and comedies like “Taxi” where circumstances force someone to become the sidekick of a cop that can’t drive. But this picture modernizes that setup by making it an Uber, which on the surface seems like a funny idea especially with the growing market for ridesharing services. What would happen if a soft-spoken Uber driver just trying to make an extra dollar became embroiled in a cop’s search for a suspect? The possibilities seem endless…but in “Stuber’s” case they are not, or at least the filmmakers didn’t act like it. Despite putting a unique spin on older ideas, “Stuber” feels way too familiar to the point where the Uber concept is really the only unique thing about it. What makes it even worse is that its most original concept is tragically underused. Once Stu and Vic are teamed together the Uber joke runs out of steam real fast and serves as more of a coincidence to justify the rest of the film. In so many words, “Stuber” fails to really cash in on a concept with so much potential and a pair of actors that feel like they’re pretty all in on the idea.
Looking at the stars of the film I surprisingly did enjoy the combination of Bautista and Nanjiani. They’re two very different people, both physically and in personality, which makes their duality in the film that much more believable. While I won’t call this anywhere near either of their best works both actors stretch their comedic chops pretty far and given the film’s overarching themes, they both feel like perfect choices for their roles. If only the script and the jokes were better. You can tell they’re having fun though, which bleeds off the screen and helped me get into a film that otherwise could have been a huge snooze fest. There’s really no other performer in this movie worth remembering. Betty Gilpin is a neat addition to the film but she’s given little to do, Natalie Morales, who plays Vic’s daughter, shows some promise but again has little to do except add some character moments for Vic, Karen Gillian isn’t in the movie long and the villain, Oka Teijo played by Iko Uwais…I don’t even remember if he has any real lines. He’s incredibly bland and other than being a badass with parkour and martial arts he gets little development at all to help him stand out. He could have been ANY villain and you would have never known the difference. Even a surprise twist (which is so obvious it’s practically telegraphed in the first fifteen minutes) fails to add anything interesting to Vic’s mission. It really is all on Bautista and Nanjiani to keep this film afloat and thankfully they do manage to make it watchable.
But story wise it’s just so predictable. “Stuber” doesn’t really tread on any new ground other than its Uber-based setup with shootouts galore, a predictable twist, by the books buddy cop story structure, bland car chases and more making it feel like simply just another action comedy. But there was plenty of potential for it to be so much more. “Stuber” has glimmers of some pretty deep ideas mixed in that benefit greatly from the star duo. Over the course of the film several timely jokes touch on the ideas of racism (like Stu calling Vic racist when Stu doesn’t even know what race Vic is which got a really great laugh out of me), the impact of guilt on someone’s personal life, and how being a man isn’t about toughing everything out or being delicate and soft. It’s about finding the middle point where you can stand up for yourself and also be willing to ask for help. But these rather relevant morals get lost in the shuffle as “Stuber” chooses to play it safe way too often rather than taking advantage of its capable leads to further drive these themes home. As with many comedies, hell many movies over the past few years, “Stuber” is one of those films that seems to actively avoid diving too deep into something thought-provoking, instead favoring ideas and themes that already worked in the past. It feels afraid to take the leap, much like Stu actually, which waters down some pretty good lessons and insightful commentary that could have made this film all the more hilarious and even satirical to a degree. Speaking of satire, “Stuber” even tries to insult the clichés of its own genres, and yet it leans on them so heavily that its jabs at action tropes feels more ironic than hilarious.
That’s really all there is to it. I wasn’t impressed. “Stuber” has some moments and made me giggle and laugh due to the charisma of its two leads alone, who really are the best parts of this movie, but otherwise it really doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. It’s the same formula and clichés we’ve come to expect from these kinds of pictures even though it tries REAL hard to make you think it’s something unique. And the sad thing is it really could have been. The Uber concept feels fresh and new but is completely wasted and there are attempts to touch on some deeper themes that would have taken much better advantage of the duality of the two main characters, but they’re treated as footnotes in a narrative more focused on giving us what we’ve already enjoyed and not enough of what could have made “Stuber” one of the standout comedies of 2019. Its refusal to capitalize on the substance and heart that was there, ripe for the picking, makes it the very definition of wasted potential. It does provide plenty of laughs, but if you’re looking for a comedy experience that is truly memorable this wouldn’t be the film I’d catch an Uber to see anytime soon in my opinion.