'Stuber' Review: Dave Bautista And Kumail Nanjiani's Screwball Dynamic Keep This Action Comedy From Stalling

Mismatched odd couples don't always a great comedy make, but Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani certainly make the case for it in the modest action-comedy vehicle Stuber. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can't keep up with their screwy, sweet buddy-comedy chemistry and ends up almost petering out thanks to a lazy script that could have used a little more time at the mechanic.

Directed by Michael Dowse (Take Me Home Tonight), Stuber can credit its dumb title to an intentionally bad joke within the movie — it's the annoying nickname that Stu's (Nanjiani) boorish boss at the retail store gives him to poke fun at him driving an Uber. Indeed, Stuber knows the absurdity of its premise: An Uber driver unwitting gets caught in a cop's (Bautista) dogged chase for the drug dealer who killed his partner, and ends up driving him across town and back out of fear for his life and his Uber rating. It's a modern, tongue-in-cheek twist on the taxi comedy with the brand recognition of Uber, which has grown frighteningly ubiquitous in the past few years — though not enough that Bautista's old-school Detective Vic knows how to use the app. But no matter how many parts you replace, Stuber is still your same-old buddy-cop comedy, complete with the familiar hokey jokes and predictable plot twists.

Opening with Detective Vic and his partner Sarah (Karen Gillan) closing in on the notorious drug lord Oka Teijo (The Raid's Iko Uwais) that they've been chasing for years, Stuber allows Bautista in his first comedic lead role to play the cop drama straight. Vic and Sarah tussle with Teijo in an alarmingly badly shot fight scene given that it's Bautista fighting Uwais — two seasoned fighters who deserve more than shaky cam and a couple of jumpkicks. When Sarah is killed by Teijo, Vic swears vengeance but is taken off the case by his boss, Captain Angie McHenry (Mira Sorvino). Guilty at having failed his partner, Vic decides to get laser eye surgery — an innocuous procedure that ends up biting him in the butt when he receives a call from one of his sources that puts him hot on the trail of Teijo.

Bautista lends a surprising amount of gravitas to Vic, a gruff and tortured detective incapable of connecting with his daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales), a rising artist who invites him to see her art show without much expectation for him to appear. It's this tough exterior that makes Bautista's shows of physical comedy all the more delightful — unable to see for the majority of the film, Bautista gamely runs, stumbles and crashes into objects with great enthusiasm. It's when he collides into Stu's car when he calls for an Uber after crashing his own that you realize the brilliant reversal Stuber pulls: Nanjiani is the straight man, and Bautista the wacky oaf.

Bautista and Nanjiani's pairing is nothing less than a stroke of genius, Bautista's lumbering machismo clashing perfectly with Nanjiani's neurotic straight man. I so feared that Nanjiani, as the consummate comedian of the duo, would be reduced to comedy mule,  all winking one-liners and self-deprecating jokes. While Nanjiani does get to shoulder the comedy evenly with Bautista — one bit in which Nanjiani takes five minutes to make a 12-point turn only works thanks to Nanjiani's charming delivery — Stu is the real heart of this film. A mild-mannered retail employe who withstands hours of verbal abuse from frat bro boss (American Vandal's Jimmy Tatro, playing to type) while pining for his longtime friend Becca (Betty Gilpin), Stu lives a live stuck in neutral. But he's perfectly happy there and not at all appreciative when he realizes his passenger is a brutish cop with impaired vision.

But despite the dream pairing that is Bautista and Nanjiani, Tripper Clancy's script doesn't do much to service it. The script attempts to send up the buddy-cop comedy without matching the sharp finesse as that of a Shane Black script or even the punchy adrenaline of a David Ayer drama. Though Bautista and Nanjiani manage to draw out several laughs, the banter is not as sharp nor the jokes as snappy as the duo deserve. Apart from a hilarious jaunt to a male strip club — which features a scene-stealing turn from Steve Howey as a sensitive stripper with whom Stu has a heart-to-heart — the rest of the film is pretty rote, following the plot of a standard action-comedy to a tee. It results in a few lulls throughout Stuber that nearly brings the film to a halt, despite the script's ticking clock subplots of Stu attempting to get to Becca's apartment for a friends-with-benefits hook-up, and Vic rushing to his daughter's art show to ensure her safety.

Though the comedy is pretty broad and the violence overtly gory, Stuber does make a few gestures at deconstructing the toxic masculinity that defines Bautista's Vic. It's another point for this film: that it doesn't mock Stu's sensitivity and instead supports him when he screams "Real men cry!" as he tackles Vic in a home good store brawl. It might be sentimental to say that both Vic and Stu learn something from each other at the end of the day, but when they do, it is genuinely heartwarming.

Despite a shoddy script, Bautista and Nanjiani provide some much needed oil grease for the rapidly stalling Stuber, kicking the film into gear as soon as Bautista gets into the passenger seat of Nanjiani's Uber. But except for the five-star chemistry between the pair, Stuber ends up mostly a middling ride.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10