Buddy comedies are a dime-a-dozen these days. And much like romantic films, they rely on the chemistry of the leads to succeed. An original plot? Unimportant. Solid acting? No need. If the chemistry works between the leads, then it should offset a lot of the film’s flaws.
Case in point, Michael Dowse‘s action-comedy Stuber, a throwback to the classic comedies of the 80’s and 90’s with an off-kilter pairing of wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista and comedian-turned-movie star Kumail Nanjiani. The two leads working together in such an amusing premise that is reminiscent of films like Taxi and Collateral sounds amusing on paper. But will the chemistry between the two work and make Stuber a fun experience that is worth a 5-star rating?
The film starts off with Victor Manning (Bautista), a loose-cannon of a cop and his smarter and more resourceful partner Sarah (a brief appearance by Karen Gillan), trying to apprehend a ruthless drug trafficker by the name of Tedjo (Iko Uwais, also credited as the fight choreographer), who unfortunately manages to get away.
Since then, Tedjo has become the Moby Dick to Victor’s Captain Ahab to the point that it has taken over Victor’s life, to the behest of his superior McHenry (Mira Sorvino), physically affecting his dwindling eyesight and emotionally disrupting his relationship with his daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales) in the process.
When he suddenly gets long-awaited intel about Tedjo’s location, he calls an Uber, driven by a timid, yet eager-to-please driver/part-time shop attendant Stu (Nanjiani), who is in an insufferable position between working under a chauvinistic scumbag of a boss (Jimmy Tatro), struggling to maintain his Uber reputation and secretly being in love with his best friend/business partner Becca (Betty Gilpin) yet is afraid of revealing his true feelings.
The troublesome two collide together and Stu soon finds himself thrust into a life-threatening ordeal where he has to keep his wits (and his sanity), avoid danger, and work with his passenger while maintaining his high customer service rating.
Let’s start off with the negatives. The action quotient in Stuber leaves a lot to be desired. Although some of them have amusingly brutal punchlines that will shock some into earned laughter (the use of a propane tank is inspired), most of the action scenes are rapidly edited and shot in tight closeups that it makes it quite hard to discern or navigate what is going on — which wastes the talents of martial arts extraordinaire Uwais in the process.
Speaking of Uwais, the supporting cast, despite making the most of what they have, are given very little to do but appear in the film as plot devices to motivate the two leads and nothing else, despite welcome presences from Sorvino, Gillan, Morales, Tatro and many others.
The script by Tripper Clancy (making his English-language debut after his work in Germany) makes simple mistakes like attempting to make fun of action tropes and yet adhering to them afterwards; the film feels like an advertisement for Uber due to many tiresome references to it that will no doubt date the film to a severe degree; and some of the jokes are delivered poorly due to them being set up blatantly, delivered in a thudding fashion and then is explained why they are funny in the first place.
Thankfully, while Stuber the film does succeed as an amusing buddy comedy, thanks to the commitment of both Bautista and Nanjiani. The two works best when it focuses on the consistently riotous banter and it is a shame that almost everything around them is not up to their level of synchronicity. Although, Dowse’s direction does mesh the action and comedy well enough (as he did in his prior projects like Goon) and he gratefully keeps up the pace and to a brisk 93 minute runtime.
Nanjiani, who was such a wonderfully amusing presence in The Big Sick, is very good as Stu, as he manages to make questionable material better than on the scripted page, thanks to his droll and passive-aggressive line deliveries. He also manages to imbue his character with some life that he comes across as an actual person; eventually owning his qualities in what it takes to be a man.
Bautista, who has done good comedic work in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, is great as Victor, as he nails the physical comedy with aplomb; coming across as a gigantic Mr. Magoo with a firearm. His loud-mouthed machismo meshes well with Nanjiani’s pacifist attitude very well; especially when the two come into conflict in a sporting goods store.
The two also manage to help bring a refreshing viewpoint on what it takes to be a man. Whether it is to avoid one’s true feelings, avoiding any chance to ask for help or being true to yourself despite what others may think of you, both Bautista and Nanjiani sell the contrasts and notions convincingly, thanks to their polar opposite attitudes meshing so well as they learn from each other.
Stuber may not be the 5-star ride that one would be hoping for, but in the sense of the term “buddy action comedy”, it gets the buddy comedy part of it right. Two out of three ain’t bad.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Stuber will be showing in cinemas July 11th.