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‘Stuber’ far from five stars

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Who among us doesn’t love a good buddy comedy? A movie with a dynamic central pairing that has good chemistry and good comedic timing – the sort of movie that can coast on the charisma of the foundational duo – can really be a great time. The right casting can cover for a lot of issues in terms of story and style.

“Stuber” is ALMOST such a movie.

The buddies in question are Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista – and honestly, it’s a really good match. They’re a wonderful set of contrasts, in terms of both sensibility and physicality. There’s an ease between them that makes for an engaging relationship.

Unfortunately, it isn’t enough. There’s a stylistic inconsistency on the part of director Michael Dowse – the film can’t seem to choose a tone, leading to some shifts in energy that are pretty jarring. Add to that a muddy script from Tripper Clancy and you’re left with a film that, while entertaining at points, fails to fully utilize the considerable abilities of the two performers at its center.

Vic Manning (Bautista) is an officer with the LAPD. A grizzled veteran of the force, he has spent years trying to take down the notorious drug lord Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais, “Mile 22”), the heroin dealer who killed his partner six months ago. Unfortunately, his time is up – Captain McHenry (Mira Sorvino, “Beneath the Leaves”) informs him that the case is being handed off to the FBI.

Vic’s work consumes him – so much so that he neglects his relationship with his daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales, TV’s “Abby’s”). When he makes plans to have laser eye surgery, she installs the Uber app on his phone so that he could still conceivably make it to her important art opening … although she isn’t holding her breath.

But the afternoon of the eye surgery – after which Vic is going to be more-or-less blind for a conveniently vague stretch of time – he gets a hot tip that might be his last chance to take down Tedjo. Alas – he can’t drive. Hence … Uber.

Specifically, Stu (Nanjiani), a guy who drives for the ridesharing service as a side hustle from his retail job at a sporting goods store. He needs the extra cash because he’s investing in a new spin gym that his friend Becca (Betty Gilpin, “Isn’t It Romantic”) – who he also is secretly in love with – is starting.

And so he is the driver unfortunate enough to pick up Vic, who immediately drags the unsuspecting Stu into his dangerous pursuit of Tedjo. The pair drive all over L.A., pursuing leads and suspects and hunches and generally getting into all manner of violent trouble. Stu, who wants nothing more than to drop Vic off and go comfort the pining-from-a-break-up Becca, is forced to follow Vic’s lead as he pursues his quarry.

It all goes about as well as you’d imagine. It isn’t long before Stu is fully embroiled in all of it, reluctantly standing beside Vic as guns blaze, explosions explode, the chase approaches its conclusion … and the two men learn a little bit about each other. And themselves.

The best thing about “Stuber” is its two stars. Dave Bautista is never going to be Dwayne Johnson – no one is – but when he leans into his narrow range, he’s a lot of fun. And a movie like this one doesn’t ask him to be anything other than the aggressive and literal-minded meathead that he excels at portraying. Meanwhile, Nanjiani is an exceptional fit as a snarky sidekick. There’s a nerdy gentility to him that suits this kind of role, an ability to be both passive and interesting. Plus, he’s legitimately funny. It’s a pairing with a lot of potential – so it’s too bad that this movie largely squanders it.

Ultimately, “Stuber” doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It’s not even the tonal shifts – it’s hard, but you can make them work – so much as it is a total disconnect. Some of the scenes seem intended for a completely different movie. Instead of fully embracing the comedic (something that would really benefit, you know, a comedy), too much of the film takes itself far too seriously, which in turn makes it tough to take full advantage of the cast – Morales, Gilpin and Sorvino are all great, but no one gets a whole lot to do.

(Note: If you’re going to cast Iko Uwais – Rama from “The Raid” – in your movie, you’d better be giving me some serious fight scenes. And while there are a couple of dust-ups with Bautista that are pretty good, I’m not expecting pretty good – I’m expecting great.)

While the movie does land some chuckles here and there, the sad reality is that “Stuber” is a comedy that just isn’t that funny combined with a pedestrian action movie. Neither element works nearly as well as it should, leaving the audience with a forgettable film that is less than the sum of its parts. That’s not the fault of Bautista and Najiani – who I’d actually quite like to see together again, only in a better project – but of the folks behind the camera. It’s not a terrible movie, but neither is it a good one.

Honestly, you’re probably better off calling a Lyft.

[2.5 out of 5]

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