The title, which sounds cognate with “stupid,” is the first clue to the tone here. This is a throwback or send-up of interracial buddy-action comedies like Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours and Rush Hour — or even more series iterations of the same idea, such as Anton Fuqua’s Training Day or Michael Mann’s Collateral.
Director Michael Dowse, working from a script by Tripper Clancy, specializes in comedies about toxic masculinity (Fubar, Goon) or it’s insecure opposite in The F Word (with Daniel Radcliffe as a soft, straight male stuck in the friend zone).
Stuber mixes both elements. Nanjiani has played passive-aggressive beta males before (Silicon Valley) and even previously played a struggling Uber driver in the Oscar-nominated rom-com, The Big Sick. Former WWA wrestler Bautista, best known as Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy movies, does a lot of drastic destroying here as well.
Stu has two jobs, in one of those man caves of machismo — a sports store — where he’s the butt of sexual jokes by the owner’s son (Jimmy Tatro). Stu is stuck in the friend zone with Becca and is trying to help her finance her new spin-cycle business, almost credibly named Spinster. Becca dates insensitive jocks and cries on Stu’s shoulder when they let her down.
To support Becca’s business plan, Stu needs to keep his Uber job, but because of a series of mishaps, he needs a five-star passenger rating to keep his job just as Vic jumps into his car on a mission to avenge the murder of his partner by a heroin dealer named Teijo (Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais).
Vic has just had ill-timed Lasik surgery and his daughter has installed an Uber app on his phone so he can be chauffeured around town. When an informant calls with a lead, Vic can’t resist following up, though he can’t see well enough to drive or shoot accurately.
While driving around L.A. with a series of cliché investigation stops (the strip bar — though male this time — plus the drug den, warehouse), there’s a firefight and torture session at an animal hospital, Stu and Vic argue about masculinity. Vic mocks Stu for not stepping up in his relationship with Becca; Stu maintains a patter of passive-aggressive shots at Vic’s primitive and estranged relationship with his artist daughter, Nicole. Predictably, one character learns to man up and the other to man down a little before the night is over.
The subject of racialized police violence and torture don’t make the comedy go down comfortably. The saving grace here is Nanjiani, who contributed to the writing, and his riffing often feels like an improvised running commentary on the inanity of the formula.
Although it’s frustratingly half-assed and full of wasted opportunities, Stuber isn’t actually stupid. This is a movie about boys who struggle with girl problems: Vic’s boss, Mira Sorvino, is a tough female authority figure, even if her plot function makes little sense. Betty Gilpin (GLOW) as Stu’s insensitive crush Becca isn’t just a callous user. It’s on Stu that he pretended to be her friend while waiting his chance. As Vic’s daughter, Natalie Morales is under-used (she was herself wickedly funny in Bojack Horseman and The Grinder) but she’s effective enough as Stu’s acerbic ally, who challenges Vic’s emotionally clenched single-mindedness.
And Karen Gillan, who plays Vic’s murdered partner, is onscreen for just enough minutes to provide him with a credible post-traumatic motivation. Somewhere, the primitive back regions of his brain, he once knew woman who was his friend and partner, who he mourns.
Stuber. Directed by Michael Dowse. Written by Tripper Clancy. Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Betty Gilpin, Natalie Morales, Karen Gillan and Mira Sorvino. Opens wide July 12.