Hollywood continues to try recapturing the magic of the odd couple/buddy cop flick. The latest addition is “Stuber,” an R-rated comedy that throws an Uber driver into an unexpected ride along with a rogue detective determined to get his man.
Kumail Nanjiani is Stu, an underachieving retail worker who supplements his income driving for Uber in his spare time. But Stu is working toward bigger goals than simply paying the bills. He is about to become co-owner of a specialty gym with Becca (Betty Gilpin), his best friend and the object of his unrequited love.
Stu’s character is a difficult one to figure out exactly. Somehow, Nanjiani feels too old for the part, but also exactly right. Stu is a man who hasn’t accomplished much in his life, mostly because he hasn’t ever really figured out who he is. He spends his time pining for Becca and agreeing to life plans because she wants him to. They are friends and nothing more. He’s the guy she talks to about her relationships. And he goes along with it because he hopes one day it will lead to everlasting happiness. Outside of this lopsided relationship, though, we never get to know anything more about Stu or his personal life or motivations. He comes with quippy one-liners, but is there more to Stu besides a crush and a strong sense of sarcasm?
Dave Bautista is Vic Manning, an LAPD detective who has spent years trying to bring down a kingpin named Tedja (Iko Uwais). After being forced into some time off, Manning schedules a visit to the ophthalmologist. But the day of the procedure, a source reveals Tedja’s whereabouts, prompting Manning to call an Uber since he can’t drive with dilated pupils. He forces his driver, Stu, to drive him around as one lead turns into another. It’s sort of a reverse “Collateral,” with the LAPD, not a hired gun, conscripting a driver into service.
Manning checks all the boxes on the list of 80s movie cop tropes. Grizzled and hardened by years of seeing the worst in people. A failed marriage, strained relationship with his far-too-patient daughter, a chip on his shoulder after a failed apprehension went terribly wrong, will stop at nothing to capture the bad guy, even if it means breaking every law that ever existed. Bautista works well, even if the archetype is worn and predictable. His comic timing and the chemistry he shares with Nanjiani keep “Stuber” moving.
As the afternoon turns into evening and gives way to night, Stu accepts his fate as a captive. He goes along to try to prevent his driver rating from falling too low, which plays out as a very weak and undeveloped motivation. But let’s face it, this movie isn’t concerned with presenting a logical plot. This is a violent comedy with over-the-top bloodshed and jokes that will make half the audience laugh hysterically and the other half declaring that it wasn’t that funny.
The budding friendship between Stu and Vic is amusing, but “Stuber” does no favors for the women in the cast. Betty Gilpin’s Becca is the worst by far. A fickle woman who is vilified for playing with Stu’s emotions, even though she has no idea she’s doing so. She’s mean, demanding, rude, and self-centered. Becca is presented with even less depth than Stu, and there is no obvious reason he would be so hung up on her.
Mira Sorvina has a potentially interesting job as McHenry, Manning’s boss. But then we get even less about her than we do about Becca. She is more of a caricature, and sometimes it seems as if she exists for the sole purpose of forcing Manning to take time off. The script finds ways to make her useful, but if McHenry was removed the story wouldn’t change all that much.
The one woman in the cast that feels a bit more substantial is Manning’s daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales). Despite her father’s frequent absenteeism, she hasn’t pushed him away. She just accepts that he won’t show up for moments like her art show. And she knows that he definitely doesn’t know anything about her life. Morales is smart and funny and patient when it makes sense to be.
“Stuber” is not joining the ranks of “48 Hours” or “Lethal Weapon” or other favorites. It doesn’t work as an R-rated comedy because the R rating comes from the violence and not the humor. This would work better if they had either made the jokes dirtier to earn the distinction or the violence cleaner to knock it down to PG13. Nanjiani and Bautista are very watchable together and that makes up for some of the movie’s shortcomings.