The title Stuber is a…well, I suppose we could refer to it as a “witticism.” You see, the lead is named Stu, and he drives an Uber. And that profoundly weak word-smash joke serves as an apt label for a movie that works on a similarly limp creative level from beginning to end, coasting on the standard buddy cop template to such a degree that it often feels like the filmmakers frequently bored themselves to death on set, entertained intermittently only by the apparent riffing between its two lead actors.
Those actors – Kumail Nanjiani, who plays Stu(ber), and Dave Bautista, as the cop who requests the rideshare because he can’t see (more on that later) – seem to intrinsically understand the weakness of the material, since from moment one, they are ON, playing each scene to a hilt that wouldn’t exist without them. It’s to the movie’s – and the audience’s – benefit that Nanjiani and Bautista move beyond the usual buddy movie two-hander dynamic and turn this into a full-on sketch show based solely on their comedic interplay. Yes, in this case, the sketches are strung loosely together by a plot, but one so rote in its formula that it’s easy to forget it exists and focus on the moment-to-moment bits that the two leads seem to create on the fly. Nanjiani, a great stand-up comedian turned Oscar-nominated screenwriter (he didn’t write this one, unfortunately), and Bautista, a former wrestler who exploded in the public consciousness with his dry comic timing in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, work hard here to find whatever stray comic energy can be extracted from each scene. Every ad-lib, every inflection, every beat is painstakingly generated from the incredible goodwill of actors who deserve more interesting material, but short of that, will work to create it themselves.
For their efforts, Stuber keeps itself level, never going off the rails, passably amusing but firmly grounded, never reaching the takeoff velocity it might’ve otherwise, if the material matched the talent of the performers. Of that material, I can’t be sure if the cobbling of buddy movie boilerplate was the result of sheer laziness or if this screenplay was a blank slate by design, to make way for the actors to find their own rhythm and create their shtick. Either way, the premise is over-obvious and the on-screen story’s only purpose is to somehow get these characters from one scene to the next, so that action and one-liners can occur in a different locale. The basic outline is so simple it’s barely there: big, tough cop is paired with small, sensitive Uber driver on a night-long quest to vanquish a ruthless baddie. The hoops Stuber jumps through to make good on that outline are so specific it’s painful: Bautista is Vic, a hard-nosed detective obsessed with bringing down the local drug kingpin who killed his former partner. Vic feels responsible for the death, since he lost his glasses in a skirmish and couldn’t see well enough to take the guy out. Months later – on the day of his Lasik surgery, to be sure – Vic receives a tip that could help him crack the case, but his vision is still blurry, so he calls an Uber to ride him from one crime scene to the next. Enter Stu, who is apparently one bad rating away from getting kicked off Uber, so Vic makes him drive all through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles on the promise of a five-star rating. I’ve maybe never witnessed a plot stay so generically thin despite being weighed down by such specific dead weight.
In terms of action, Stuber is fairly listless, always seeking a big-joke payoff but never finding the cadence to deliver. The film also has an odd relationship with violence, as scenes often punctuated with hard-R gore that is clearly designed for darkly comic shock value, but director Michael Dowse can’t find the tonal balance to make those moments feel anything other than uneasy and out of place. There are plot reveals that come out of nowhere, but it’s hard to care much about that when the movie itself doesn’t. In the midst of it all, Nanjiani and Bautista leverage their odd-couple pairing into a quasi-subversive thread on modern manhood, but that’s bound to get lost in the larger boondoggle of Stuber, which remains about as clever as its title.