Any comedian will tell you that a good joke is all about timing. And at a glance that is something which appears to be in Stuber’s gas tank. As a new R-rated laugher based on the very enterprise of extracting humor from the modern sharing economy, the film is about the implicit awkwardness anyone’s ever felt using the Uber app, be it as a passenger or driver. It’s a knowing setup in which both parties must team up to save the day—and in this case be embodied by stars of the moment like Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista. Yet the actual punchline it delivers is the most well-worn and tired drum-snare you’ve heard in a while.
Little more or less than the type of buddy comedy that used to overstuff multiplexes in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Stuber is like the old guy in a new sports car. He might be using it in an unusual way as a ride-service side hustle, but you’ve seen this picture a hundred times. In this case, it’s the cop and “street-wise” guy (or at least a Millennial up on his generation’s latest standards and practices). While the lack of originality isn’t a problem in and of itself, as few of the best buddy cop films of all time could be accused of having it, the sense of exhaustion in the humor is.
The gist of Stuber’s joyride is that Bautista is Vic Manning, one of the best detectives on the force despite his bad vision. So when his partner is killed in the line of duty (Bautista’s Guardians of the Galaxy co-star, Karen Gillan in a cameo), Vic becomes a full-time crusader out for revenge against the man responsible, Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais). But as luck would have it, on the same day Vic finally has LASIK corrective eye surgery, Tedjo comes back to town for a major underworld deal. Thus Vic reluctantly tries what all the kids are doing these days, including his daughter (Natalie Morales): he orders an Uber.
And so enters Stu (Nanjiani), a good-natured and milquetoast Uber driver. He technically works for a sporting goods store as his day job—where his boss has given him the unfortunate nickname of “Stuber”—but he is driving for Uber in order to save up enough money to finance the dream business of his girlfriend Becca (Betty Gilpin)… Well, actually, she isn’t really his girlfriend, but they fooled around that one time… and if he gets enough high-paying five-star rides, he might be able to impress her. Maybe, kind of? It’s a sad little niche, and a perfect one for Vic to exploit as the manly, basically blind cop who forces Stu with a badge and a gun to drive him from one set-piece to the other. Will the brutish authority figure and overly sensitive Uber driver rub off on each other?
As a slightly tweaked variation on 48 Hrs., Ride Along, and the rest, it is unsurprising to say that what good cheer there is to be found is from the amiable discomfort of its two leads. One of the bright young comic stars of his generation after The Big Sick, Nanjiani goes bigger in Stuber and plays an archetype of every neurosis associated with his generation. As a good-natured schmuck who is more comfortable chatting about Ryan Gosling romance movies than he is police work, Stu makes for excellent oil when juxtaposed against Bautista’s water. The latter likewise riffs well on his Drax characterization by playing a cop who also takes things a dash too literally. Bautista might struggle a little more when Vic is required to leave his lane of crusty curmudgeon, but whenever he is forced to squint his bleary eyes while trying to fire a gun, there are a handful of chuckles to be had.
The obstacle he cannot so easily drive around is less the actual roadwork Vic crashes into and more that his situation is a solid sketch of comedy dragged to an unpleasant length of 93 minutes. The setup of a blind cop and Uber driver trying to solve crimes occupies the nebulous space between standard late night comedy skit and maybe something a little more experimental on Adult Swim. Either way, it’s not enough of a gag to fill a full episode of Rick and Morty, never mind a standard issue Hollywood buddy vehicle. Nanjiani and Bautista fill the space fine, with shoulders awkwardly crushing against each other in Stu’s eco-friendly electric car, but there just ain’t enough road in front of them to keep this up.
As a consequence, a number of desperate and unfunny sequences are thrown their way—including the inevitable falling out, third act scene that requires both parties to act like 12-year-olds—but the laughs dried up well back in the first reel. Meanwhile director Michael Dowse commits the cardinal sin of action movie-directing by making the fight scenes boring. And when those fight scenes feature one of the greatest martial artists alive in Iko Uwais, the fact we cannot see most of his moves behind the generic shaky-cam work is downright heretical.
There are some laughs to be had in Stuber, and its leads are able to carry this sucker to its final destination. But when they have to do it with their hands, and long after the fumes have run out of the tank, the movie’s plea for a rating of five stars falls on deaf ears.