A couple years ago, my colleague Brian VanHooker did a deep dive into the ethos of the Mismatched Buddy Movie, that semi-popular cinematic subgenre in which one guy is forced to hang around with another guy who’s very different than him. You know what happens from there: They don’t like each other — usually because they don’t share the same race, background or personality — but sure enough, they’ll eventually find common ground, and maybe even develop a grudging respect for one another.
It’s a familiar story arc, but there’s also something deeply satisfying about that narrative trajectory — something that speaks to a core longing within a lot of men. In the article, VanHooker interviewed Gregory Bray, who teaches Digital Media & Journalism at SUNY New Paltz and believes that these films’ eternal appeal is that they offer proof that men can, in fact, forge worthwhile friendships with other men:
“As opposed to the more nihilistic stories of heroes versus villains, buddy films can give us hope that we’ll have those connections: That we’re going to have a wingman or go on an adventure with somebody, or maybe we’re going to have somebody who gets to know us really well — and still likes us anyway.”
No doubt those universal stirrings helped inspire the setup for the new action-comedy Stuber, which very much apes the Mismatched Buddy Movie template perfected by 48 Hrs., Midnight Run, Men in Black, Rush Hour and dozens of others. Meet Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), a polite, soft-spoken Uber driver, who picks up Vic (Dave Bautista), a muscular, hard-ass cop on the hunt for a notorious drug dealer. They immediately don’t hit it off, and for the rest of Stuber’s interminable 93 minutes, they engage in humorless jawing at one another before predictably forging a bond and bringing the bad guys to justice.
Stuber is terrible, which is especially annoying because there’s actually a very good idea at its core. Trapped in that Uber ride alongside Stu and Vic, I started thinking about how these two characters really represent everything that modern men are grappling with — not just masculinity but also a shrinking economy and a shifting cultural landscape that can be scary for guys to navigate. All of that thematic terrain is potentially rich grist for a sharp comedy. Too bad Stuber is too stupid to take advantage.
On its most basic level, the film tries to draw laughs from Stu and Vic’s contrasting styles of manhood. Stu is a sensitive dude who’s very big into talking about his feelings — something that has doomed him to the friend zone with the woman he secretly loves, Becca (Betty Gilpin) — while Vic is a proud alpha male who doesn’t think men should cry and quickly grows tired of Stu’s touchy-feely approach to handling problems. Vic basically wishes he was a cop in a 1980s action movie — y’know, back when men were men — while Stu is evolved but also an utter wimp. (If Stuber actually was a 1980s movie, Vic would call him a “pussy” and keep making homophobic jokes at Stu’s expense.)
I wish Stuber would have subverted the buddy-cop movie’s testosterone-poisoning mindset to comment on what’s clichéd and problematic about the genre. The big-screen 21 Jump Street did this very well, and Stuber director Michael Dowse certainly has the chops: His previous film, the hockey comedy Goon, cleverly critiqued manly-man tropes while simultaneously being a goofy, appealing crowd-pleaser. But as much as Stuber flirts with “toxic masculinity” topicality, it paints its odd-couple pairing so broadly that Vic and Stu come across as parodies of The Tough Guy and The Woke Cuck. They don’t feel like actual human beings, which is a missed opportunity since the issues they’re dealing with in Stuber are very real.
For instance, the movie stumbles at demonstrating how all types of men have difficulty opening themselves up. Vic has a daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales), who’s an aspiring artist hurt by the fact that her dad has always been more focused on his work than in her. (He loves his little girl, but because he’s a Cro-Magnon clod, of course he’s utterly unable to appreciate her esoteric sculptures.) Plus, he’s quietly mourning his cop partner Sarah (Bautista’s Guardians of the Galaxy co-star Karen Gillan), who died by his side in the line of duty. But Vic’s old-school code of masculinity forces him to shut down emotionally, never realizing that his stoic-dude routine is only making everything worse. Not that Stu is much better — he’s so ludicrously, excessively passive and accommodating that he lets everyone treat him like shit. Stu doesn’t want to be a macho blowhard like the Vics of the world, but it turns out that being a doormat who’s afraid of conflict doesn’t make you any happier or a “better” person — it’s just as emotionally stunted and cowardly.
Stuber also taps into late-capitalism anxiety, but not in any way that’s remotely meaningful. The film offers plenty of jokes about Uber rides — oh man, the customers are so annoying! — while barely acknowledging that the reason Stu drives for the company is that he desperately needs money. Stu’s plight feels very 2019: He works day shifts at a soulless big-box store, and when that’s over, he drives as a second job. The movie establishes that Stu does this because he’s so whipped — he’s trying to raise the cash for Becca’s nascent spin-class business — but doesn’t have much to say about Uber’s terrible relationship with its workforce. (At this stage, it’s probably not hyperbole to suggest that the company treats its drivers as indentured servants.) Stuber turns the bleak reality of the gig economy into a dopey Collateral-ish comedic conceit — I’m sure all those Uber and Lyft drivers who went on strike earlier this year will find it hilarious.
Other social and political issues get addressed, none of them skillfully. It’s meant to be darkly humorous when Vic brazenly tortures suspects — take that, SJWs, police brutality is hilarious! — in order to get information about the drug dealer’s whereabouts. These scenes play on the two characters’ differing views of masculinity, with Stu preaching basic decency and Vic acting like he’s auditioning for Lethal Weapon. But rather than feeling timely or edgy, these cultural third rails are just fodder for Stu’s-like-this/Vic’s-like-that yuks. Stuber figures that name-checking buzzwords is the same thing as having a point-of-view — it’s as if the filmmakers did research on what keeps normal people up at night and then wrote some tone-deaf jokes around those topics.
The Mismatched Buddy Movie requires that the protagonists despise each other at the start, which presumably makes it all the more surprising and gratifying when they come to like one another later. Stuber slavishly follows the formula, but I couldn’t help but think that these two guys really do have more in common than they know. If Vic is stubbornly holding onto an outdated vision of manhood, then Stu is equally perplexed, straining so hard to be a woke nice guy while quietly hating himself because he doesn’t think he’s manly enough. Both men have awful work/life imbalances, so devoted to their jobs at the expense of everything else. And neither seems to understand women at all. (In one of Stuber’s rare good scenes, a scantily-clad male stripper, played by Shameless’s Steve Howey, offers Stu dating advice — he’s a total bozo, but he’s the only man in the movie with any halfway-decent grasp of healthy emotional connections.)
But if Bray is right that buddy comedies help men learn that same-sex friendships are achievable, they can also teach guys how to look past their own biases to see what connects them to other men. Perhaps Stuber’s finest moment occurs when the aggrieved Stu accuses Vic of being racist toward him, provoking Vic to respond that he’s not white, a nod to the fact that Bautista is of Filipino descent. For a minute, Stu stands there stunned, realizing that he’s made racial assumptions about this cop — maybe Vic has had to deal with some of the same prejudice that he has.
Stuber’s main characters are the epitome of what’s confounding to many modern men: The world is changing, old norms are falling by the wayside and some guys don’t quite know how to handle it. Unfortunately for Stu and Vic, the filmmakers are even more clueless than they are about what to do about it.
Here are three other takeaways from Stuber…
#1. What’s a bad star rating for an Uber driver?
In Stuber, Stu is freaked out that his Uber rating is dangerously close to four stars (out of five). If he doesn’t get that star rating up, he may lose the ability to drive with the ride-share company. Since I’ve never worked for Uber, I was curious how accurate that plot point was. How low is too low?
Not surprisingly, Uber doesn’t have an official answer for this. On its website, you’re informed, “If your rating approaches the minimum for your area, you’ll receive notifications and tips for how to improve it. If your average rating continues to fall below the minimum after multiple notifications, your account may be deactivated pursuant to the Community Guidelines. Deactivation is only used as a last resort, and your account may be activated if you take certain steps to improve.”
That sounds both ominous and vague. But the truth is, most drivers aren’t anywhere close to being a 4.0 — and that’s because Uber will boot you long before then. In 2015, a leaked Uber document made the rounds that suggested that a driver hovering around 4.6 could be “fired.” (The document, from 2014, indicated that only around two to three percent of Uber drivers were in danger of that possibility.) So it’s not very realistic that the friendly Stu would be only averaging a 4.0.
This brings up a larger question: How often do you not give an Uber driver five stars? I don’t use them that much, but I’ve never had a ride so terrible that I didn’t just go ahead and give the person five stars anyway. Partly, it’s because I know that it’s not necessarily a lucrative gig and I don’t want to ding them for something minor. Plus, they give me a rating as well, so I want to stay on their good side. And I have good reason: Recently, Uber announced that certain riders could be banned if their star rating is too low, although the company declined to name a specific number.
For the record, I’m currently sitting at 4.97. I’m inordinately proud of that.
#2. Can you jump in front of a bullet like characters do in action movies?
If you’ve seen 10 action movies, you know the trope: One character, often in slow-motion, will jump in the path of a speeding bullet to save his friend from being shot. It’s always incredibly selfless and heroic… and probably completely impossible, especially if you’re not Superman.
Stuber makes fun of this convention, with the characters talking about how ridiculous it would be to actually think you could move fast enough to jump in the way of a bullet. But really, could you do it if a loved one was about to be shot?
No. No, you cannot. Don’t even think about it.
In 2013, Scientific American’s Kyle Hill wrote about the ridiculousness of this action-movie trope. “Bullets are fast — even a 9-millimeter handgun launches lead at Mach 1,” he notes. “And the bigger the bullet gets, the more grains of gunpowder it carries, the faster it goes. Modern rifles can fling the small pieces of metal at half the velocity needed to escape the gravitational pull of the Moon. Our weapons are so fast, in fact, that you couldn’t get in front of a bullet even if you saw it coming.”
In other words, forget the whole jumping-in-the-way idea. Your best bet to be a big, self-sacrificing hero would be to stand directly in front of the person you’re trying to protect and simply hope your body would be in the line of fire when a bullet eventually comes. As Hill points out, that’s what happened to Tim McCarthy, a Secret Service agent who was on duty when Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981. McCarthy heard gunshots and then got in front of the president, taking a bullet for him. (Different stories said he was shot in the abdomen, stomach or chest.) But McCarthy wasn’t blocking the initial bullets — nobody would be fast enough for that. Instead, he was positioned precisely for the subsequent shots.
“No agent thinks it will happen to them,” McCarthy, who made a complete recovery, said in 2011 about his heroic act. “If you stopped to think about it, you probably wouldn’t do it. It’s not a rational act.”
Certainly as irrational as thinking you could jump in front of a speeding bullet like characters do in the movies.
#3. It’s nice — and also poignant — to see Mira Sorvino in ‘Stuber.’
Stuber doesn’t have much interesting to say about toxic masculinity, but in a weird way, its most effective point is made not through dialogue but in casting. Mira Sorvino plays Vic’s tough-as-nails boss, and while it’s a pretty nothing role — at least initially — I felt a swirl of bittersweet emotions seeing her playing the character. And that’s because few actresses are more at the center of the #MeToo era — and the damage sexual predators caused — than Sorvino.
If you don’t recall, Sorvino, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite, spoke out in Ronan Farrow’s bombshell 2017 New Yorker piece, alleging that Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed her in 1995. “At the time, I told people close to me, and tried to confide in a female employee at Weinstein’s company, Miramax,” she later told Time. “Her reaction was as though I was suddenly radioactive for daring to bring it up, which gave me little encouragement.” In fact, Sorvino was, in essence, blacklisted by Weinstein, who had the clout to ruin her career, despite the fact that she had just won the industry’s biggest prize. For years after Mighty Aphrodite, I had assumed that maybe she had one great role in her and that was it, which explained why it seemed like she’d dropped off the map. Turns out, it was an orchestrated smear campaign to destroy her, which director Peter Jackson confirmed in 2017, saying that he’d been warned not to cast her because she was “a nightmare to work with.”
Sorvino kept acting, but she never again attained the prominence she once had. Her fall is even more troubling because her Oscar win came in a film by Woody Allen, who has had to contend with his own sexual-assault allegations, and that she dated Quentin Tarantino, who was long associated professionally with Weinstein. Her absence from studio films is damning proof of how powerful Weinstein was.
“The idea that there was this malevolent hand that actually had changed the course of my professional life was devastating to me,” Sorvino said last year. She later added, “I just felt iced out, but I didn’t know that it went anywhere beyond just [Weinstein’s] particular films. So to feel like it was this broad-reaching thing that affected my entire career was really, really hard to handle.”
As Sorvino mentions in the same interview, that iced-out period corresponded with the years she would have been most bankable. Sorvino turns 52 in September, and one of Hollywood’s other terrible truths is that actresses still have to contend with being considered “past their prime” at a ridiculously young age. And so, while Stuber isn’t a good film by any stretch, Sorvino’s appearance in it is a small measure of generosity to a performer who got robbed of more than a decade of potentially major starring roles.