Review: Stuber (2019)

Michael Dowse’s Stuber follows Kumail Nanjiani as Stu, a man working a soul-crushing job at a sporting goods store earning some extra cash by driving for Uber. One day he picks up Dave Bautista’s detective Vic, who forces Stu into his hunt for the man who killed his partner. Will Stu learn how to be a real man?

Whether intentional or not, that question appears to be the heart of Stuber, a film that feels a decade or two behind the curve, or at least written from the perspective of someone longing for the day men return to being ‘real men.’ Predictable for a film so stuck on classical gender roles, the characters that inhabit this movie fill simple niches and pursue shallow goals.

At times, Stuber threatens to say something, sometimes dabbling with the concept of toxic masculinity. Yet that central figure, detective Vic, is free to cause mayhem, the film gleefully embracing his violent acts to satisfy its action needs. Whatever backwards views he pushes, it feels that Stu is the one being prompted to change.

The problem with this is rooted in the film’s treatment of police. Vic is indisputably a bad cop, essentially going rogue and at one point straight up torturing a suspect. The film only rewards him for these actions. There’s a suggestion that police brutality is acceptable as long as the victims are bad people and if it serves as a means to an end. When it comes time for the leads to tear each other down, it’s not Vic’s brutality but his failure as a father that is treated as his defining flaw – it’s as if the film views these violent acts as emblematic of a certain flavor of masculinity, treating it as a legitimate alternative to Stu’s reserved nature. This is a buddy cop film that never convinced me to view one of its two protagonists with sympathy.

Being an action comedy, one would hope it could deliver on either front, but the very first scene gives us fair warning on how underwhelming that first descriptor will be. We begin in a shootout, the camera shaking and staying far too close to the action. When we do get a clear picture, the action is too simple in its choreography. This is all cut at such a rapid pace to cause disorientation – the whole experience is a chore, and the action sequences that follow are much the same.

The comedy is similarly shoddy, much of the humor living up to the easy pun in the title – it feels as though the team behind this film was setting itself up for ‘Stupid Uber’ jokes. That name is given by Stu’s boss at the sporting goods store, a complete caricature of annoying coworkers, so dully constructed that any joke he’s granted falls flat due to his artifice. Similarly, due to Vic’s failure to garner any form of sympathy, his banter with Stu carries little pulse.

The characters of Stuber are guided less by logical decision-making and more by the raw needs of a shoddy comedy writer. I never once believed Stu would stick around, his motivation literally limited to trying to earn a 5-star review to keep his Uber rating above a certain threshold. We at least have it established that Vic is desperate to find his partner’s killer, but would he really start that hunt a few hours after receiving LASIK eye surgery? Yet another highlight of his total lack of sympathetic traits, this quest begins with him barreling down a street and crashing into a manned construction site. He proclaims a desire to keep drugs off the street while happy to make himself a more immediate threat while under zero pressure – he is simply following the first lead at that point, so why the desperation?

The one positive that keeps Stuber above water is Kumail Nanjiani, this desperate driver caught between awful jobs and an inability to express himself. He does an excellent job capturing the ball of anxiety named Stu, and I wish he was dealt a better script. His characters spends much of the movie choosing between enabling Vic’s violence for a good Uber rating and visiting a friend for sex right after her breakup; the only reason he manages any sympathy is due to Nanjiani’s charisma.

Stuber is a largely mean-spirited action comedy that rarely lands its punches. It stumbles to establish any major themes, sometimes even seeming to embrace toxic masculinity and police brutality. The worst sin of all, however, is that it’s a comedy that rarely garners a laugh.

1.5 Stars Out of 5

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