'Stuber': Film Review | SXSW 2019

A riotous retro pairing of serious violence and serious laughs.

Michael Dowse goes back to the '80s with a violent buddy comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista.

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 never without being funny, the pic's script sometimes sounds like surreptitious branded content for said service, which has had some shameful moments in its corporate history and, this week, appears not to understand how to pick SXSW-ers up in front of the fest's headquarters. Since the four people introducing the film said the words "work in progress" over a half-dozen times between them, in an unnecessary bid to ward off bad buzz if the comedy didn't click, the filmmakers are evidently ready to change anything viewers don't like. Let's assume that between now and its July release, the film will morph into Stlyft.

Dowse, director of 2011's surprisingly likeable soccer-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 that 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 will occasionally interrupt. (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 killer set-pieces in — fights in veterinary offices and sporting-good stores that are comic without diminishing their life-or-death stakes. The naggy tension between the leads turns into a fine chemistry; and as he is forced to pretend he's a cop, Stu finds enough self-confidence even to stop an episode in which Vic tries to torture someone into spilling what he knows. (If the interrogators at Abu Ghraib had access to prisoners' Twitter accounts, the War on Terror might be over now.)

Though very 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, Stlyft will get you where you want to go.

Production company-distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin, Jimmy Tatro, Mira Sorvino, Karen Gillan
Director: Michael Dowse
Screenwriter: Tripper Clancy
Producers: John Frances Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Executive producers: Jeremiah Samuels, Nicholas Thomas, Jake Wagner
Director of photography: Bobby Shore
Production designer: Naaman Marshall
Costume designer: Leigh Leverett
Editor: Jonathan Schwartz
Composer: Joseph Trapanese
Casting directors: Nicole Abellera, Jeanne McCarthy
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)

105 minutes