‘Stuber’ Review: “A Delightfully Old-Fashioned Buddy Comedy”
If there is anything that buddy comedies have proved over the years, it is that they only need a solid pair of leads to be considered a success. Between films like Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, and The Nice Guys, it is rare that intricate filmmaking or a compelling narrative stands out as their greatest asset. In spite of that, they remain enjoyable for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are showcases of the two leads vibrantly working off each other. Also, these films give their actors the chance to play entirely diametric characters. Generally speaking, it is a sub-genre that continues to thrive even as more extravagant blockbusters get released. For the summer of 2019, Stuber happens to be the newest film to fit that mold.
In fact, Stuber fits that mold so much that it is easy to accuse it for its lack of innovation. The narrative’s most distinct element in comparison to similar films is that it takes an Uber drive to unite its two main characters, Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) and Vic (Dave Bautista). Outside of that, the plot beats and characters are boilerplate material for the genre. Stu is an average working class individual who lacks the courage to show his true feelings toward his crush. Vic is a tough police officer who lacks the ability to interact with people without resorting to aggression. When the two cross paths, they predictably get wrapped up in each other’s struggles and have to work their way to a friendship.
Based solely on Tripper Clancy’s screenplay, it is hard to see how Stu and Vic would be likable leads. In the film’s opening scenes, it seems to imply that these two would be insufferable if they ever met each other. This becomes especially apparent given that several jokes do not treat their unpleasant qualities as a worrying matter in the slightest. For example, one scene involves Vic recklessly driving around town. He not only crashes into trees, he also sends his car into a busy construction trench. Even though he is causing lots of property damage, no one places him in any punishment and the plot instead moves along as if that did not happen.
But for everything the opening act implies, Stu and Vic turn out to be a great pairing that brings out the best in each other. Over the course of its brisk 93-minute runtime, Stu and Vic gain the personality traits they previously lacked as they spend more time in each other’s company. As such, they transform into the likable characters essential to the buddy comedy formula. In fact, that praise might be inadequate: as soon as they meet, the movie becomes fun in all the ways a movie like this should be.
Of course, it helps a lot that Nanjiani and Bautista are such a fine comedy duo to begin with. Neither of them are stretching beyond their capabilities, to be sure. On one side, Nanjiani uses his trademark deadpan expressions and line readings. On the other, Bautista is firmly in his comfort zone of playing the dumb tough guy. But they are superb at executing the friendly banter that the script asks out of them. Moreover, they commit to the zanier moments when necessary. One major example is the fight between Stu and Vic in the sporting goods store. Above all, this scene requires them to indulge in painful physical comedy. Because of how engaged they are into hurting each other in this sequence, it delightfully uses the principle of “violence is funny” to its full extent.
It would be unfair to dismiss the other noteworthy element in Stuber: its treasure trove of Uber jokes. As soon as the film depicts Stu driving around as his part-time job, it pokes fun at the daily struggles of the Uber driver. We see Stu’s try-hard attempts to earn a five-star rating from customers, as well as the unfortunate backseat blunders. Ultimately, it makes no hesitation to show the day-to-day experience in unflattering ways. Granted, these bits have little significance in the actual story other than to punctuate existing scenes. Still they serve as an unobtrusive and effective method to convey the modern setting.
Stuber eventually brings in more action spectacle as more violent gang members enter the plot. This would not be a problem if director Michael Dowse framed and staged the action beats as well as the comedy beats. That does not turn out to be the case at all. While the hand-to-hand combat scenes involving heroin dealer Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais) are chaotic but comprehensible, the camerawork and editing are only effective at making the action hard to follow. Combining fast editing with shaky, unfocused shots often leads to dreadful action. Worst yet, however, is that it fits poorly with the delicate filmmaking style in the rest of the movie.
Additionally, it would be a lie to say that Dowse and company pulled off the final sentimental moments. Granted, it succeeds in incorporating themes of toxic masculinity in the character arcs. It is a bit of a shame that it is the only emotional element that lands successfully. Again, this largely comes down to the effectiveness of Nanjiani and Bautista than anything else. There is also the matter of Vic’s daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales). Nicole mostly exists to remind Vic of how poor of a father he really is. The final father/daughter scenes could have worked if Nicole had a larger role. But they instead flounder because of the lack of interest the filmmakers have near the ending.
Every step of the way, the filmmakers populate Stuber with some of the most standard action and comedy cliches. Thankfully, it seems that everyone involved recognizes its shortcomings and commits to providing solid laughs as its top priority. So even when few things match up to the terrific duo of Nanjiani and Bautista, the final product remains a delightfully old-fashioned buddy comedy. This is by no means one of the best in that sub-genre. However, it does hold up as one of the more pleasant movies that the summer of 2019 has to offer.
Stuber is now available in theaters.
The film stars Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin, Jimmy Tatro, Mira Sorvino, and Karen Gillan.
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