Sometimes, it just comes down to laughs. A few years back, director Michael Dowse made one of the great sports comedies of the last 10 years, Goon, and he proved that he had a passion for the sport of hockey that made the film not only funny but knowing and insightful. Now working from a screenplay by Tripper Clancy, Dowse seems to almost have stumbled into Stuber, the story of gruff LA detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista of Guardians of the Galaxy), who is pursuing a violent drug dealer (the great Indonesian action star Iko Uwais from The Raid movies) that killed someone close to him six months earlier and who commandeers hapless Uber driver Stu (Kumail Nanjiani of The Big Sick and HBO’s Silicon Valley) for a thrilling, violent, and sometimes terrifying ride through some of the city’s worst neighborhoods.
This new twist on the buddy-cop movie (Stu is pretending to be or mistaken for a cop for a great deal of this film) seems more intent on delivering some fairly savage and bloody action sequences than laughs, and that’s fine as long as the jokes that are left in actually work more often than not. But the film is so focused on making these two guys rub off on each other—Stu needs to grow a pair and stand up for what he wants in his personal life; Vic needs to stop being an insensitive dick and be a better father to his grown daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales)—that the whole endeavor feels phony and forced, like a series of behavior lessons and less about a new friendship. That being said, there’s a fight scene between the two men in a sporting goods store that is both epic, hilarious and prolonged, and I wish there had been more moments with that level of absurdity throughout.
The film has select moments that work, but for every one of those, it’s followed by jokes and situations that simply land with a commanding thud. Even the setup of Vic having eye surgery coincidentally on the same day this hot tip comes to him (thus the need for an Uber driver) feels like the worst plot contrivance in a generation, at least. Making it all that much worse, Stuber even shows hints of a better version of itself with appearances by Bautista’s Guardians co-star Karen Gillan in the opening scenes (I won’t say as who) and Mira Sorvino as his commanding officer, whose news that he’s effectively the last case against the drug dealer is what triggers his last-ditch effort to catch him with the help (if not the cooperation) of Stu. Sadly, the usually terrific Betty Gilpin (GLOW) as Stu’s best friend and potential love interest comes across as a fickle and clueless (and a brand of horny that actually made me uncomfortable), and is largely wasted here.
The most frustrating thing about Stuber is that the pairing of Nanjiani and Bautista is a solid one, and perhaps working with a more solid script, there might have been something here. Instead, the movie feels like someone thought just seeing the two of them on screen together would be enough to have the audiences in stitches, and that is a gross miscalculation. There’s nothing there to grow a friendship upon, and in the end, it all feels like a giant missed opportunity. And that doesn’t even include the predictable subplots involving Stu and his messy love life or Vic and his dysfunctional relationship with his artist daughter, both of which feel like filler and less about deepening any of the characters.
As I said at the top, sometimes it just comes down to laughs. Many ingredients are in place to make Stuber a winner, but the sad fact is, the laughs aren’t there with any degree of consistency, and that’s ultimately the source of all disappointment.
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