- 20th Century Fox
Is the buddy action comedy Hollywood's most consistently satisfying—and consistently underappreciated—genre? Simply posing the rhetorical question betrays that I've got a specific answer in mind, so bear with me as I sing the praises of a mismatched pair thrown into a dangerous but amusing scenario. It's a formula that requires quite a few specific components to work—leads that have just the right chemistry, a scenario that doesn't get in the way of the comedic set pieces, directing that's at least moderately competent at handling the action—but if you don't blow it, you've got a crowd-pleaser on your hands. Silver Streak, Midnight Run, 48 HRS., Lethal Weapon, 21 (and 22) Jump Street, The Nice Guys: How rich is the history of fast-paced, funny showcases for an odd couple.
At the risk of overselling the modest charms of Stuber, it lives squarely in that comfort zone. As often is the case in these stories, at least one cop is involved; here, it's an L.A.P.D. detective named Vic (Dave Bautista) who has a score to settle with the drug dealer (The Raid's Iko Uwais) who killed his partner. On the day that Vic has lasic surgery, he learns that the dealer is planning a big score, and Vic is determined to take care of business on his own—despite the fact that he can barely see. So he conscripts an unwilling partner in Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), a sporting-goods store employee who's moonlighting as an Uber driver. And constitutionally, Stu's not really built for a day that involves gunfire and car chases.
The script by Tripper Clancy is effectively two high-concept ideas sewn together: "What if a tough-guy cop had to solve a crime while basically blind," and "What if a mild-mannered guy was forced to chauffeur in a situation that put him in harm's way" (basically Collateral, but with jokes). Both sides of that story are meant to maximize the strengths of the two stars, and they both do a fairly good job of it. Bautista's imposing physical presence gets sent banging and crashing into every available piece of scenery, while we also get to see the kind of quirky sensitivity he brought to Guardians of the Galaxy's Drax. And Nanjiani soars as the milquetoast who absorbs the mocking "Stuber" nickname given to him by his boss (Jimmy Tatro), and who needs the extra cash from his side hustle so he can become a business partner with the friend (Betty Gilpin) he has long adored.
Indeed, one of the problems with Stuber is that the best bits all swing so heavily toward Nanjiani's. He's a master of delivering a deadpan line, like referring to his brutish, demanding passenger Vic as "Douche Lundgren," or lamenting how exhausting it is to get into a fight. It's perhaps an unfair comparison, as Bautista is playing more of the 48 HRS. Nick Nolte part to Nanjiani's clear comic relief, but when one sequence set in a male strip club winds up shifting back and forth between the two main characters—Vic questioning the club's owner, and Stu getting relationship advice from a stripper who's donning a frilled collar and powdered wig for his costume—it becomes clear that the more time Stuber spends focusing on Stu, the more entertaining it's going to be.
There's also a fairly perfunctory quality to much of the action as directed by Michael Dowse (Goon), which is never able to maximize assets like Uwais' lithe kineticism. It's much stronger when the action leans into silliness, like an extended brawl between Vic and Stu at the sporting-goods store where Stu works, and a shootout in a veterinarian's office that culminates in a John Woo-like release of doves. "Buddy comedy" is fine, but you can reach another level when the "action" part of "buddy action comedy" is also thriving.
Stuber hits enough comedic high notes that it's not a particular problem that the earnest character beats fall flat—"You're always close to something, except the people who actually need you," complains Vic's daughter (Natalie Morales)—or that some of the reveals surrounding the drug-dealing plot feel like part of a different movie. Nanjiani is terrific, and the partnership with Bautista is an inspired one even when the fun stuff is slanted to one side. The test of this genre is, "Would I be happy to see these two guys get into another crazy situation?" Or maybe I'm just easy to please when two guys get into crazy situations.