In a desolate summer of blockbuster sequels and Disney remakes and Pokémon moonlighting as detectives, it’s hard to overstate how refreshing it is to see a studio movie as silly and self-contained as Michael Dowse’s “Stuber.” Spider-Man is nowhere to be found. The biggest action scene is set in a sporting goods store. And the hero isn’t fighting to save the planet, but only to help pay for the small business he wants to open with his crush (it’s a spinning gym geared towards single women called “Spinsters”). If not for the triple-underlined nowness of an action-comedy about a rideshare driver — will that premise make even a lick of sense to anyone in the future? — and a socially conscious subtext about the perils of toxic masculinity, this is the kind of fun July diversion that Hollywood might’ve made 20 years ago.
We’re talking about a movie that’s called “Stuber” because it’s about a guy named Stu who drives an Uber; a movie that starts with Dave Bautista exploding through the walls of a Los Angeles hotel like he’s the Kool-Aid Man, and ends with Kumail Nanjiani fighting the guy from “The Raid.” At one point, a very large penis in the background is likened to beloved film character Simon Birch. What more do you want? The world is on fire. The film industry is self-immolating. It’s 90 degrees in Anchorage, but America’s multiplexes are still cold enough to keep “Dark Phoenix” from actually rotting on the screen. At worst, “Stuber” is a way to get out of the sun without a superhero in sight. At best, it’s a veritable time machine that’s powered by enough chemistry to fuel an entire franchise — a franchise you hope never comes to pass. In this day and age, that feels like $15 well spent.
“Stuber” starts with a bang, as Los Angeles’ swolest detective (Bautista) leads his partner (“Guardians of the Galaxy” co-star Karen Gillan) into an ambush in a downtown hotel. The infamous drug smuggler Teijo (Iko Uwais, pulling double duty as villain and fight choreographer) has gotten the drop on Vic and Sara, and — after a choppy but giddily violent shootout — Sara is killed and the bad slips away into the Staples Center crowd.
Six months later, Vic is still stewing about how it all went down. It’s the hottest day the city has seen since 1911, the detective’s blood is practically boiling over, and the Teijo case is starting to feel like it may never get solved. Vic’s daughter, an artist named Nicole (Natalie Morales), tries to convince her dad that there’s more to life than killing dealers, but the guy is too steamed to see things clearly. LASIK surgery feels like a step in the right direction, but the call Vic’s been waiting for comes through mere seconds after he leaves the doctor’s office, and about 12 hours before his eyes will be usable again: Teijo has been spotted in town, and the cops can get him if they move fast. Vic has no other choice — he has to call an Uber. And that’s how he meets the neurotic Stu (Nanjiani), whose financial future hinges on getting five-star reviews from his passengers.
Yes, it’s a sweaty plot setup, but Tripper Clancy’s script is strained in a way that owns its ridiculousness at every turn. Drama is a contract killer hailing a taxi — comedy is a blind detective carjacking an Uber. Nanjiani does a brilliant job of threading the needle between neuroticism and bemusement, even if Stu doesn’t always make a ton of sense as a character. The most realistic thing about him is that he has to work two jobs to make ends meet (Jimmy Tatro of “American Vandal” fame does strong work as Stu’s chauvinist douche of a boss). The “friendzone” vibe he maintains with his beautiful pal and maybe business partner Becca (“Glow” star Betty Gilpin) also checks out, and the film amusingly dismantles that dynamic even if it has to waste Gilpin’s immense comic talent in the process.
Beyond that, it gets a little slippery. Stu is dedicated enough to sport a “FIVESTAR” vanity plate, but not enough to go the extra mile and offer his passengers iPhone chargers or bottled water? Curious. Also, is it really that hard to maintain a solid rating? Would one bad day really kill his business? And why does this feature-length Uber commercial not even use the app’s real interface? These are the questions you might ask yourself during the film’s sporadic down moments.
Mercifully, such opportunities are few and far between. Dowse, a Canadian director whose background is equally split between humor (“What If?”) and violence (“Goon”), is comfortable with both parts of the action-comedy equation, and capable of melding them together when the time comes. This is a tight film that doesn’t overstay its welcome, but Dowse isn’t afraid to spend five minutes watching a nearly blind Bautista — the massive ex-wrestler hunched over a steering wheel like Mr. Incredible — steer his car into a ditch. A long scene at a male strip club has to carry much of the movie’s plot on its shoulders, but Dowse casually foregrounds the gags in a way that makes it feel as though the jokes are driving the story and not the other way around.
“Stuber” doesn’t exactly have the comedic horsepower of a film like “Superbad” or “Pineapple Express” (or even Nanjiani’s own “The Big Sick,” which is a more sedate experience but also fuller in every way), but it only goes into auto-pilot whenever the standard-issue plot has to rearrange its pieces for the next act. The film is at its best when Nanjiani and Bautista are given the time to just sit in the front seat and make fun of each other. Bautista, who’s perfected the “hyper-violent gentle giant” shtick, is naturally funny whenever he’s forced down to human scale, and Nanjiani’s semi-irritated wit makes him a perfect foil for the Terminator-like killing machine in his passenger seat. You can feel how much these actors enjoy each other, and that energy is palpable even when the jokes aren’t there to support it.
“Stuber” is only so interested in exploring the crisis of masculinity in the modern world, but Nanjiani sells it by complicating his character’s strengths and weaknesses; Stu may be a (relatively) scrawny pacifist who’s trying to trap Becca into loving him back, but he’s able to recognize how Vic’s Rambo-grade brawn masks its own mess of vulnerabilities. Together, they learn that asking for help can be the most masculine thing in the world, and — in that way — “Stuber” is as much of a corrective to “Collateral” as it is an homage. This silly trifle might not stand the test of time, or even be remembered by the time you get home, but it gets you where you’re going with a smile on your face.
Twentieth Century Fox (through Disney) will release “Stuber” in theaters on July 12.