Gimme a lyft

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

An ‘80s-style action comedy whose mismatched heroes are a vengeful cop (Dave Bautista) and the timid man (Kumail Nanjiani) forced to drive him around Los Angeles, Michael Dowse’s Stuber bears that name because Nanjiani’s character is named Stu and he drives for a certain ride-hailing app. Though not without being funny, the film’s script sometimes sounds like surreptitious branded content for said service, which has had some shameful moments in its corporate history.

Dowse, director of 2011’s likeable hockey-brawl comedy Goon, knows his way around mayhem, and starts things off with a bang. Bautista’s Vic and a partner played by Karen Gillan are chasing heroin dealer Teijo (Iko Uwais, the Indonesian martial artist of The Raid fame) out of his penthouse and, scarily, down the balconies of a fancy-hotel atrium. Things go badly; Teijo gets away, killing Vic’s partner and becoming his great white whale.

Six months later, Vic has just finished up a Lasik surgery when he gets word Teijo will resurface for a drug deal going down tonight. (So much for the doctor’s advice to avoid any increases in heart rate.) But he’s essentially blind, a fact he must admit when, to chaotic effect, he attempts to drive to meet his informant. Fortunately, his daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) just installed an app on his phone so he can get around post-surgery. Newfangled tech annoys Vic, but he manages to get Stu to pick him up, and to get him to wait at what turns out to be the scene of a murder.

Stu’s been getting a lot of racist one-star reviews lately, and his need to keep his average above four stars forces him to do whatever Vic asks at the day’s start. Later, he’ll have to stay with Vic if he wants to live. That doesn’t mean he’s happy about it, and Stu’s constant complaints lay a carpet of laughter the movie’s more physical humor occasionally interrupts. (No offense to screenwriter Tripper Clancy, making his first feature in English, but there’s no way this dialogue didn’t benefit heavily from the stand-up star’s contributions.)

The two men have hardly gotten to know each other when the emotional advice begins. Stu can see that Vic doesn’t pay enough attention to his daughter; macho Vic has no patience for Stu’s cowering approach to the close friend (Betty Gilpin) he’s secretly in love with. Its alignment with a problematic corporation aside, the film’s main flaw is its need to spoon-feed us this psychoanalysis, making sure we won’t miss the emotional growth to come.

As Vic’s Mr. Magoo detective work takes the pair to Compton, Koreatown, and parts unknown, Dowse works a couple of set-pieces in—fights in veterinary offices and sporting-goods stores that are comic without diminishing their life-or-death stakes. The naggy tension between the leads turns into chemistry; and as he is forced to pretend he’s a cop, Stu finds enough self-confidence to stop an episode in which Vic tries to torture someone into spilling what he knows.

Though charismatic in his role, Bautista isn’t given moments nearly as winning as he had as Drax in the Guardians of the Galaxy films. But somebody clearly drew other lessons from the cheesy-fun soundtracks of those Marvel adventures. Here, soft-rock hits by Styx and the Hollies provide ironic counterpoint to shootouts and chase scenes. Though it’s enjoyable enough, filmmakers are going to wear this routine out soon—at which point, maybe they’ll strip the irony away for a return to grittier buddy-cop pictures a la 48 Hours. Until then, Stuber will get you where you want to go.

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