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(2019) * R
94 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Michael Dowse. Cast: Dave Bautista, Kumail Nanjiani, Iko Uwais, Mira Sorvino, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin.

/content/films/5170/1.jpgThere’s a famous lesson all improv-comedy performers learn: “play to the top of your intelligence.” The idea is for one’s character not to make choices or say things that are dumber than the character ought to be based on his or her life experience. The new action-comedy Stuber may have a script, but it breaks this rule all the same, with protagonists that constantly act more stuber—err, stupid than they should.

Stuber stars Kumail Nanjiani as part-time Uber driver Stu. At Stu’s other job selling sporting goods, his douchebro boss (Jimmy Tatro) tauntingly dubs him “Stuber,” but Stu has a much bigger concern: his dwindling star rating on the ride-offering app. Enter brawny cop Vic Manning (Dave Bautista), whose morning LASIK surgery has rendered him temporarily seeing-impaired just as he gets a major break in a drug case he takes personally. Six months earlier, that case took down Vic’s partner (Bautista’s Guardians of the Galaxy co-star Karen Gillan), creating the perfect storm to bring the timid Stu and the reckless Vic together.

Unable to drive, Vic orders up Stu’s Uber, and away they go on a not-so-merry chase after drug dealer Oka Tedjo (Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais). Tripper Clancy’s screenplay repeatedly tries and fails to justify the premise Stu sums up as “blind cop kidnaps an Uber driver.” Vic has no current or retired cop friends he trusts to help him? Stu is so invested in a single star-rating that he keeps waiting around for Vic? These are not characters played to the top of their intelligence.

Things happen in Clancy’s script not because they are credible, but because screenplay texts say they should for a film’s narrative structure. The terribly undercooked plot purports to bond Vic and Stu based on little to nothing we’ve seen happen between them and, worse, then stages an extended physical fight between them when they’re supposed to be working together to bring down the bad guy. Why? Because some screenwriting coach taught Clancy to raise the emotional stakes—just not how to do it in any realistic way.

Similarly, Clancy assigns each character a single issue in need of resolution: Stu gets drunkenly booty-called by his best friend and business partner (Betty Gilpin of GLOW): can he bring himself to tell her he loves her? Vic’s daughter (Natalie Morales) feels neglected and unloved: can Vic show her he cares by making it to her art show? These questions lead only to the clumsiest of answers. Of course, both Gilpin and Morales languish in thankless roles (ditto Mira Sorvino as Vic’s captain). Clancy would rather create friction with the old binary of modern masculinity: inarticulate, emotionally-stunted “man’s man” versus mousy wimp in need of a spine.

As directed by Michael Dowse (Take Me Home Tonight), Stuber’s throwback buddy action-comedy offers unexciting action and unfunny comedy. The fight sequences are ineptly shot and edited, and the jokes fall flat far more often than not (Nanjiani occasionally lands a funny line, perhaps by riffing off-script). It’s the kind of movie that makes you feel bad for the actors. Bautista and Nanjiani have star power, and could’ve made a buddy comedy work, but not with this script and this little help behind the camera.

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