Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘Stuber’ Exposes the Horror of the Gig Economy

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After watching Stuber, I now have an inkling of what it must be like to personally watch the heat death of the universe. It is a gormless, unfunny action-comedy starring likable charismatic actors as neither likable or charismatic characters. It doesn’t help that Michael Dowse has bravely decided to forego even the barest hint of fun or charm. 

Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) drives an Uber. But every bad review and low star rating pushes him closer and closer to losing his job. Dowse shows us the fickleness of the Uber passengers. He gives us a glimpse at how little regard they hold for Stu, or his leased electric car. Stuck in a dead-end job at an off-brand Home Depot, Stu is forced to drive for Uber to make ends meet.

But in order to maintain a five-star rating, he must provide a five-star experience. Maintaining his car, providing refreshments and music for his passengers, who oftentimes ignore him or throw up in his car, has left Stu a broken shell of a man. Each incident, beyond his control, leads him closer and closer to being fired. Uber doesn’t care because Uber only cares about the five-star ratings.

Remarkable how Uber is so blinded by corporatism and greed they could not see how awful they come off. Possibly because Dowse and his screenwriter Tripper Clancy, have written in an excuse. It’s not Stu’s fault that he needs a second job, it’s Becca’s (Betty Gilpin).

Becca and Stu are old friends. Stu has feelings for Becca. Instead of telling her, he merely pines for her from afar. He even goes so far as to partner with her on a small business loan. Becca dreams of owning a Spin gym for ladies only called, “Spinster.”  The film is careful never to blame Becca for “friend-zoning” but the way Dowse and Clancy frame her tends to imply Becca is an entitled emotional manipulator. 

Which brings us to Detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista). Bautista’s grizzled loner detective is ripped from countless other action movies. Gruff, selfish, and overly aggressive he is the walking embodiment of the 90’s archetype. He even comes with his own backstory of a partner killed in the line of duty. His partner is played by Karen Gillian who is every bit as tough and savvy as Bautista’s Manning.

The two bounce well off each other and Gillian, once again, shows a propensity for action stardom which is intriguing. Even the chase sequences between her, Bautista, and the requisite exotic bad guy Teijo (Iko Uwais) are well-paced and executed. Dowse and his cinematographer Bobby Shore utilize the architecture for some of Stuber’s few gorgeous and interesting moments.  

One scene has Uwais getting from the top floor to the lobby by jumping from floor to floor. It’s an exhilarating scene. Partly because Uwais is such a charismatic presence and partly because he’s also a stuntman. It’s actually him flinging from one floor to the next. Yet, he is wasted.

Despite being a central character we never see Uwais again. Uwais drives the plot and is the catalyst for Vic calling an Uber and holding Stu hostage as he chases Uwais down. Why go through so much trouble to show us Teijo is such a dangerous and menacing force only to ignore him? Even more baffling, he doesn’t even come in until the last fifteen minutes of the film, and even then only for a few minutes.

Stuber doesn’t know what it is or even what it wants to be. Nanjiani and Bautista have good chemistry and are both extremely talented and likable. But for an hour and a half, they fail to elicit more than a chuckle. Clancy’s script isn’t a script so much as characters hewing to and calling out archetypes and stereotypes. 

Bautista’s Vic is so brutal and cruel, despite our knowledge about his partner’s death, we never quite get on his side. His intensity is tuned up to full bore but not in a way that fits what little of a cohesive tone Stuber strives for. Vic Manning is a character that reminds us why characters like Vic Manning don’t exist anymore.

Likewise, Nanjiani’s Stu is likable but defined by his terror of Vic and lust for Becca. Stu never feels like a character so much as Nanjiani trying desperately to find humor in the blood and rising body count around him. It is a valiant but futile effort.  

The one true bright spot is Vic’s daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales). Morales is fun, charming, and somehow magically makes us care about Vic and Stu. Predictably, she is sidelined for most of the movie. Much like Teijo, she is much talked about but little seen.

Yet, when Vic and Stu arrive at her art show to see if she’s okay, Stuber ceases to lag. For an all too brief moment, we become invested because Morales engages with these two characters in a way that reveals layers to the otherwise shallow caricatures. It’s here we realize how badly these characters are treated by the script. They are not allowed to listen and talk, they just talk at each other—at cross purposes.

But when Morales enters the fray, Vic becomes human and Stu begins to crystallize right before our eyes. It helps that Morales is charming and exceedingly likable, but it also shows her ability to take a literally nothing role and turn it into a fulcrum for which all other characters could begin to function.

Alas, the scene is over far too quickly and before long it’s back to mindless action and even more brain dead dialogue. The best scene in Stuber is in the art gallery wherein the characters just talk. Somewhere in that scene is a lesson, but I doubt Dowse or Clancy are aware of it.

Stuber is a movie with no style or look.  Shore, who has shot such films as Goon and The Invitation, seems as lost as everyone else. At times we get the feeling from Clancy’s script that Stuber is meant to be a riff on the action comedies of the nineties. But Shore’s camera never replicates any particular era of the genre. Granted, Shore does make us feel the glaring Los Angeles sun beating down on our heroes in such a way that just thinking about it makes me begin to sweat. But it’s never consistent.

Chalk it up as another casualty of the feckless direction by Dowse. Then again, is it really Dowse’s fault? In the pantheon of movies made as corporate propaganda, Stuber will go down in history as a singular achievement. That the film, because it uses Uber, was given the stamp of approval by Uber, is a damning insight unto itself. 

Stuber isn’t an ad for Uber. It’s a nightmarish invective meant to ward off potential applicants. The film basks us in the constant dread and anxiety baked into the very fiber of the “gig economy,” and it’s gut-wrenching.

The filmmakers made a bad film; that’s on them. But Uber has inadvertently allowed Dowse to pierce the veil. It reveals monstrous and horrible conditions in which their drivers must exist in order to barely eke out a living. We have plenty of time to mull over this because Dowse and Clancy have bravely neglected to pepper the propagandist boondoggle with anything resembling a plot.

On the bright side, despite how stultifyingly dull Stuber may be, it doesn’t dampen our love for the actors themselves. For as tired and bloated as the scenes may be, we never get the feeling they are phoning it in. I’m not saying it excuses them; merely that I do not blame them. Though if you go see Stuber, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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