Those who read the “trades” keep seeing the same things… something is off in Hollywood. Box office numbers are down. Is streaming killing the industry? How about the relentless stream of remakes? Anyway, anyone who remembers the 1990s knows what the summer movie season at its finest can be: loud, brash and flying box office dollar bills! As we enter the dog days of summer, this year feels like a bit of a letdown. Very little has clicked with audiences, and the strain is beginning to show. Will the new, (same old) unlikely, buddy comedy Stuber be more of the same? Or can the little feature turn things around. Here’s what you need to know.
Stuber follows police officer Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) in his single focused quest to bring down cop killer and drug dealer Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais). Along the way, he meets up with reluctant Uber driver Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), the one person able to help Vic on his mission. Michael Dowse directs the film from a script by Tripper Clancy.
At its roots, Stuber is exactly what it looks like, a buddy comedy. A great deal of the narrative work hangs on the shoulders of the talented cast. Nanjiani stepped forward as a force to be reckoned with in movies like The Big Sick and even Men in Black: International. The stand-up comedian and podcaster, absolutely nails his character, bringing a sense of emotional depth to what could be a fairly superficial comedy. All at once, Nanjiani serves as a stand-in for the audience and a relatable figure of identification all while bringing his trademark sense of humor to Stu. He’s particularly good in the material dealing with Becca (Betty Gilpin), his friend who just happens to be a girl, who he plans on opening a “spin gym” with. Nanjiani taps into the pain and awkwardness of unrequited crushes (something to which we can all relate) and the audiences relishes in his triumph as he’s finally able to rise above his problems.
Fans of wrestler turned action movie star Dave Bautista should find plenty to enjoy with Stuber. The script gives him much more to do than in the past. He’s given some heavier narrative material, specifically dealing with his daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) and his partner Sara (Karen Gillan). However, he struggles somewhat with the increased narrative challenge. Truth be told, this in actuality could be a bit of character development in itself. Ultimately, his best scenes are with Nanjiani. As the two men spend more time together, and their relationship develops they find a very fun sense of banter. Both bring a number of laugh lines, which extend beyond what is seen in the trailer.
As Stuber plays out, the film crafts an interesting and savvy analysis of masculinity, played out through the polar opposite Bautista and Nanjiani. The development feels like a bit of a narrative afterthought, only taking shape deep in the second act. As the characters really gel, the story begins to make a point about the different facets of masculinity: it doesn’t make someone any less of a man to be in touch with his emotions. In a society which routinely struggles with depictions of toxic masculinity, a message like this is an important one in hopes of breaking down gendered norms. While contemporary culture is particularly adept at spotting and picking apart problematic takes of femininity, masculinity often falls through the cracks. Depictions of men on screen have, and will continue, to enforce unhealthy masculine “norms” until we change them from within.
Unfortunately, Stuber isn’t as impressive in its treatment of the film’s female characters. There are plenty (and all have names!); however, they are given little else to do. This is particularly notable when looking at Manning’s daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales). Morales is particularly adept at bringing progressive and well-rounded women to the screen, so it is disappointing that so much of her development is relegated to her job as an artist and her relationship with her father. This is consistent with each of the women from Nicole and Becca, to Manning’s boss (Mira Sorvino) and Sara. The performances are great and the previous works of these talented actors shows just how much is missing in the narrative construction. While this is a male driven buddy comedy, that doesn’t mean the ladies need to be shallow husks.
With a star like Bautista attached, it seems no surprise that one of the films biggest strengths is its many action sequences. Director Michael Dowse works well with his stunt team, crafting a tone which is at the same time humorous and bone crunching. The hits are hard. The pain is real. However, everything works together in a way which preserves the humor in the script. All the movie’s fight scenes are particularly good, with the shining star coming deep in the second act as tensions come to a head (No Spoilers!) between our leads inside a sporting goods store. Dowse’s stylistic handling of the scene compliments the smart work of the stunt team, and the result is a hard-hitting, but entertaining scene.
Stuber is definitely a summer movie. It’s loud, flashy and it packs a punch. Is it anything groundbreaking? No. In a summer which has been defined by its lack luster box office showings, this will hopefully be a bright spot for summer audiences. Those looking for an adult comedy should use this one as an excuse (at the very least) to get into some air-conditioning.
Stuber is playing in theaters around the country now.