Though in many ways a throwback to the violent buddy comedies of the 1980s and ’90s, Stuber comes with a contemporary twist that might resonate in gig-economy America.
The movie stars Kumail Nanjiani, as Stu, a driver who is indentured to a ride-hailing app and desperate to boost his customer service rating when he picks up a burly law enforcement officer Vic (Dave Bautista) who is half-blind from a visit to the eye doctor.
Vic is an undercover cop who gets a tip about a drug buy and forces Stu to drive him on an increasingly dangerous series of investigation-related stops. Stu wants to bail out, but is effectively coerced into participating by the constant threat of a customer service downgrade.
Thus Stu’s “side hustle” turns life-threatening (his Prius has rather a hard day as well). Part of the blame rests with Stu’s pushover personality — a deferential nature that has left him in the friend zone with putative girlfriend (Betty Gilpin).
Buddy comedy rules apply: As the bullets fly and the driver and passenger bicker, they also bond. Stu learns from Vic how to stand up for himself. Conversely, Bautista’s bull-in-a-china-shop cop learns, from Stu, how to be a bit more sensitive — he’s had trouble spending quality time with his daughter (Natalie Morales), whose gallery show dad will miss if he gets distracted by the investigation.
The plot is transparent and almost willfully dumb, but the comic rapport between Nanjiani (The Big Sick, HBO’s Silicon Valley) and Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) is decent. Bautista bellows and blusters, and Nanjiani works effectively underneath the bigger man’s energy, with low-key asides that help Stu register as more out of his element than fearful, and so the character is elevated from quivering sidekick.
The movie is directed by Michael Dowse, who had a sleeper hit a few years back with eh Canadian hockey comedy Goon, which did a good a job explaining the purpose and ritualized, operatic appeal of bare-knuckle enforcer fights in ice hockey.
His Stuber is similarly violent, and also able to find a way to give the audience permission to laugh — on those occasions when the movie is funny. The movie’s overall laugh-to-dud rate is somewhere in the range of the rebooted Shaft.
Stuber and Shaft are the kind of movies Hollywood made every month back in the ’80s and ’90s, until audiences — after a half dozen or so Lethal Weapons — grew tired of them. Stuber serves to remind us of why we liked them, and also that they wore out their welcome.
Stuber. Directed by Michael Dowse. With Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Betty Gilpin, and Mira Sorvino. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Parents’ guide: R (violence, language)
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.