In comedy, the term “hat on a hat” refers to the biggest sin in joke writing - ruining one gag by overwhelming it and placing a different comedic scenario on top of it. Tripper Clancy’s screenplay for Stuber is built entirely upon placing a hat on a hat, taking what is essentially the premise for Collateral (a taxi driver falling deeper into LA’s criminal underworld over the course of one night), and adding a distracting, conclusively unfunny scenario beside it. Far from being content with the simplicity of this set-up, Clancy has decided to make the police officer who unwittingly gets into the protagonist’s cab blind due to having an eye operation on the same day.
For director Michael Dowse, mixing the simple thrills of an action comedy with something altogether zanier proves to be an impossible task. It could be that applying this gimmick was a calculated move to differentiate it from Collateral, to which this is a more openly comedic (and yet significantly less funny) cousin, but it proves to be an ill fated decision. After all, it’s hard to show the inherent absurdity of the situation while you simultaneously have to convey that this character is a hero cop - and by making Dave Bautista’s Vic Manning the straight man, with a comedic sidekick stuck on deadpan autopilot, it’s just an added guarantee that the heightened premise and the jokes contained within will unanimously fall flat.
LAPD detective Vic Manning gets a call telling him the whereabouts of Oka Teijo (Iko Uwais), the drug lord he’s been tracking for months. The only problem - he’s had eye surgery that day, and has been left temporarily blinded. On the advice of his daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales) - who wanted him to visit her art exhibition - he calls an Uber, where he meets Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), who is now required to ferry him around the entire breadth of the city, from Compton to Venice and back again. As the night progresses, Stu ends up becoming more involved in the mission than he could have ever imagined, sticking with it solely to pick up the five-star rating from the Uber user he so desperately needs after a run of bad passengers.
Bautista and Nanjiani are talented comic actors, but they’ve been cast in roles contrary to where their comedic strengths lie. As Guardians of the Galaxy has proved, Bautista is at his best adding an offbeat quirk to the broadest and silliest one-liners. But here, his character is never intended to be ridiculous, even as he causes a major traffic accident prior to jumping in Stu’s Uber. In fact, it could be very easy to forget that his character has been temporarily blinded due to how the screenplay refuses to rely on it as a set-up, to the extent that it becomes easy to wonder why this high concept needed to be added, when saying his car broke down and he needed to call an Uber would yield the same results. Nanjiani is relied upon to be the sillier presence, even though his form of humour relies mostly on the dry and the deadpan - a decidedly awkward fit for this role.
The lack of jokes, singularity of premise and incoherence in casting all become secondary concerns when it comes to the film’s most offending aspect: the abhorrent treatment of its female characters. Vic Manning’s partner in the job - Sara Morris - played by Karen Gillan, is murdered less than five minutes into the film by the villains he’s intent on tracking down - and she’s far from the only woman onscreen designed to be nothing more than a McGuffin. Stu’s frustration with having to drive Vic around town is amplified due to the fact he’s been invited to go and have sex with his friend Becca (Betty Gilpin), a character we see almost entirely through FaceTime screens, and exists only as the ideal of an unattainable girlfriend who can create personal growth for the hero. But this is just a more overtly misogynistic version of Vic’s own struggle balancing his work and family life, with his own daughter once again acting as a shorthand for his personal growth, rather than as a character in her own right.
There’s nothing particularly sexist about Stuber on the surface; hell, it even subverts an underworld cliché by going to a gay strip club, with full frontal male nudity that, in a rarity for a mainstream comedy, is presented without being the punchline to an outdated gay panic gag. But once you delve in deeper, it becomes incredibly uncomfortable in its insidious attitude towards its women, defining them only in how their relationships to the male characters can help them develop as people, as opposed to giving them agency and a semblance of personality outside of their relevance to the men’s struggles. There are other signifiers to why Stuber is incompetent - not least due to hiring The Raid’s Iko Uwais as the big bad, and framing all his action scenes with fast cuts and shaky cam that obscures his talent for martial arts. But more so than the lack of laughs, the bizarre treatment of the women onscreen is the thing that has lingered in my mind most since watching.
Stuber is in UK cinemas now