From Michael Dowse, erstwhile director of The F Word, Stuber is more promising than it gives itself credit for. Aside from its likeable leads, the film boasts a bonafide decent conceit. This is the story of an Uber driver – Kumail Nanjiani’s Stu – who finds himself engulfed by the hunt for a slippery underworld drug lord when LAPD detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) hitches a ride. Sadly, an early wrong turn in the film’s navigation misses the opportunity. What follows is a trip over reliant on B roads and over extended by roundabouts. It is small mercy that Dowse’s passengers do, at least, seem committed to ensuring a fun ride.
As though it were not hard enough already to distance Bautista from his dumb literal role in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy duo, Stuber opens with a mini-reunion. It’s an all too brief appearance by Karen Gillan that seeks to establish Vic’s character as being hard as nails but soft as putty. Gillan plays his highly capable partner Sarah, who meets an early end when their first attempt to take down Oka Teijo (Iko Uwais) in an Inception-styled hotel goes awry. This is not least thanks to Vic’s dodgy eyesight and compounded by Oka promptly knocking his glasses from his face. It’s a murky start to the film. Somewhat John Wick esque in its ideational choreography and soundtrack but never sharp enough. Neither is it daft enough to feel like comic pastiche. Therein lies the initial clanger.
Things begin to feel more chirpy when Nanjiani totters in as Stu, nicknamed Stuber in corny portmanteau reference to his part time career as an uber driver. It’s not his dream career but driving jerks – ‘I don’t like it when girls make jokes’ – from A to B pays the bills and allows him to support long-term crush Becca (Betty Gilpin) in setting up her own women’s only gym business. Stu is safe territory for Nanjiani, who has made a career off the back of anal, uptight pushovers with a dry comic wit, but not without dramatic weight. Certainly, Nanjiani is able to invest more nuance in Stu than Bautista can afford Vic, even where both are gifted meaty-ish character arcs to play with. Each actor has charisma enough to ensure a hooking and so it feels a shame that their bait leads to a whimper. With the film revolving around the believability of their odd-couple relationship, it’s a sluggish sell. Sure, they get on but it’s hard to believe they’d exist as a pair outwit the film’s length.
It’s the hints of something more here that really disappoint. Stu’s dependence, for instance, on customer ratings for validation and financial stability – ‘I can’t drop below four stars or I’ll lose my job’ – is depressingly attuned to the modern psyche but is hardly explored in a script endlessly distracted by dud jokes about mispronounced surnames and sensitive strippers. Likewise, discussions around the nature of modern day masculinity are dropped in with only perfunctory relevance, whilst Vic’s strained, yet almost endearing, relationship with his daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) never delves further than skin deep. Nicole might fare better than Becca in three dimensional measurement but that’s not saying much. It is because Dowse’s characters feel so chronically underdeveloped that they repeatedly fail to gel. This is a film in which relationships are so sketchy that a shared joke is considered enough to constitute potential for matrimony. Worst of all is the cruddy metaphor that sees Vic semi-blinded by surgery early in the film – hence needing an Uber – simply to allow him to learn how to see again as the story unfolds. Could this be any more on the nose? Perhaps not.
Stuber’s failing is its inability to sustain constant amusement. There are enough laughs – eventually – across the runtime to lure you into hoping it could become something more but alas no. A been there, done that feeling pervades the action – think: Collateral – whilst the comedy never finds its rhythm, even with a highlight routine in which Ryan Gosling films are deployed as successful tools for torture. For that, an extra star.