The new comedy “Stuber,” which marks Disney-Fox’s second consecutive bomb after “Dark Phoenix,” is one of the most anti-gay (or homophobic, to borrow the woke parlance of my generation) movies I’ve seen come out of this millennium. Even if it does scrape by as a mostly mediocre and sterile buddy cop excursion, “Stuber” constitutes a fascinating beacon of the rhetorical hypocrisy endemic in Hollywood, who admonish Middle America for holding retrograde or taboo values while fiddling with those same values in their productions and laughing all the way to the bank.
When I excoriate “Stuber” as a vehicle of moral hypocrisy, I’m mostly referring to the Twitter persona of star Kumail Nanjiani. The Pakistani-American comedian has long exploited his limited capital from the best show on television (“Silicon Valley”) to take pot shots at conservatives online, decrying transgender jokes, Harambe jokes, jokes in general, police shootings, and fellow liberals who don’t cleave absolutely to the Democratic plantation. Without detailing the unbroken timeline of Nanjiani’s greatest Twitter hits—a challenging task, considering he’s deleted thousands of them—or the occasional political statements of co-star Dave Bautista, suffice it to say that both outwardly progressive and pro-gay leading men have made themselves party to a comedy that has more laughs at homosexual stereotypes than a Judd Apatow joint.
Nanjiani plays a sporting goods store worker who moonlights as an Uber driver and exhibits all of the sensitive dude characteristics that have pervaded the actor’s career since his 2013 stand-up special, “Beta Male.” Unwillingly branded with the pet name Stu-ber, Stu drives an all-electric vehicle, unironically uses words like “problematic” and “queen,” squeals in excitement over the music of Sade, and responds to harsh criticism with the firm riposte of, “You do your thing, I’ll just go f— myself.” On top of these traits, he’s also solidly heterosexual, struggling to communicate his feelings to his long-time girlfriend.
On the other side of the masculinity spectrum falls the muscle-bound and spartan Bautista. LAPD officer Vic Manning is the apotheosis of stone-cold beefcake (it’s even encoded in his name) yet is dependent on Stu’s driving because he’s legally blind. The personality clash between these two figures—a sniveling nu-male smart aleck and an emotionally pent-up tough guy—supplies most of the movie’s humor and heart.
In fact, the director, producers, and cast seem all too happy to entertain readings of the film as a treatise on toxic masculinity, one in which the sensitive Stu teaches Vic to let go of his aggressive impulses and spend more time with his daughter. To any member of the public who’s seen the film, such headlines will look more like desperate deflections from the traditional gender politics of “Stuber” than an accurate reflection of the film.
The arguable centerpiece of “Stuber”’s hilarity plays out in a gay strip club. As his passenger questions the manager of the place, Stu gets into a conversation with one of the brawny performers, who reveals a Hillary 2016 tattoo on his back. “She was up by 12 points in August,” he explains himself. It’s a mean, reactionary sight gag playing upon the audience’s expectations and emasculating a character in one of the more embarrassing ways imaginable.
The ostensibly queer stripper begs derision in other ways, mainly by his total spinelessness and the giddy, affected voice he slips into when Stu scores a movie night with his crush. His lifestyle is simply treated as a joke.
Far from getting less divisive as it builds to an epiphany for the protagonists, “Stuber” steps on the throttle of its anti-gay energy. Having arrested and sequestered a drug dealer, Vic tries to wring information out of him by force, but his uncreative bad cop drill is no match for the advanced interrogation techniques of Stu, who steals the bad guy’s phone and gets to work on gaying up his Twitter. “I love Ryan Gosling movies,” he types out loud. “He is hot-t-t-t-t-t.” The helpless captive howls in distress, and we’re meant to howl along, at him and at Stu’s ingenuity in humiliation.
The film comes to an obligatory break-up scene in the third act, wherein the two friends of less than a day verbalize their grievances, have a fight in Stu’s closed store, and make up. Director Michael Dowse emphasizes the subliminal homoeroticism of the buddy genre by framing the exhausted actors lying parallel in an overhead shot. “I’m surprised we lasted that long,” one of them jokes.
Their reconciliation is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Stu’s boss, who crudely misinterprets their position. Appalled by the sight, he doesn’t buy the team’s insistence that they’re working an important case. “Case? Is that what you call your butt?” he scoffs, reinforcing that it’s understandable to laugh at the very idea of gay men having sex.
Nanjiani and the crew would probably justify this scene as a subversion rather than an affirmation of what some would deem homophobia. The shop-owner is obviously compensating for crippling insecurity in his own masculinity by diminishing that of his co-worker, defensively resorting to anti-gay signaling. He’s both mortified about his hair thinning and distraught at the possibility of Stu, whom he secretly admires, quitting and leaving him to his loneliness.
Of all the male characters in the movie, the creators would say, he’s perhaps the most sad and pitiable. Still, none of these character defects change the reality that we are supposed to laugh compulsively with the boss at the semblance of two men getting up from making love.
Lest I spoil all the best jokes in the movie, I’ll skip over the many ways “Stuber” makes light of police brutality, recklessness, and corruption and reorient myself to its actual filmic merits. As the archetypal burly cop and disconnected dad, Bautista continues to cement himself as one of the more affable screen actors working today, like Dwayne Johnson if he wasn’t contractually obligated to play cool and charismatic all the time. He brings the perfect mix of incredulity and disappointment to Vic’s banter with Stu, poking fun at the latter’s media-warped perception of law enforcement work.
Nanjiani is also in peak comedic form playing a character typical for himself. At its best, “Stuber” serves as a springboard for the comedian to deliver zingers like “Douche Lundgren” and to revise a text message obsessively in the aims of maximizing his odds of hooking up.
The most remarkable aspect of “Stuber” besides its overt hypocrisy is its wastefulness, in music, direction, and especially casting. The eclectic soundtrack includes The Avalanches, Arcade Fire, and The Hollies, but Dowse either cuts the needle drops too short or relegates them to the background, preventing them from blessing the film with their full grandeur.
He also sees fit to cast nerd culture favorite Karen Gillan from “Doctor Who,” yet sends her off unceremoniously after six minutes of screen time. Furthermore, Dowse gives the main antagonist role to Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais—a move that should equate to catnip for action fans—yet chooses to shoot all the action like a drunken sailor, obscuring the “Raid” actor’s athleticism.
As an action-comedy, “Stuber” bungles half of its raison d’être, realizing the most absurd concepts for mayhem outside of a comic-book movie. At one point Stu assists the unseeing Vic in a shootout by lobbing fragile objects at their assailants, allowing him to line up precise headshots by sound as if his unprotected ears wouldn’t be ringing.
For about its first 15 minutes, “Stuber” threatens to be a bowdlerized and thinly veiled ad for Uber and other products, demonstrating the mechanics of the service in far more detail than necessary. The two stars should be commended for salvaging something intermittently funny and cathartic from a premise so commercial and time-sensitive, essentially the R-rated corollary of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “The Emoji Movie.” No one, however, should be commended for posturing as a secular crusader against police misconduct or marginalization of gay people while participating in a film that finds cheap humor in both of those things.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with storytellers drawing on social issues or societal aliments for humor. “Smokey and the Bandit” has a racist, womanizing sheriff as a major character, but Bufford T. Justice didn’t stop it from becoming one of the most successful, quintessentially American comedies of all time. It’s unfortunate to see a generation of artists either so detached from the function of comedy or so assured of their moral superiority that they don’t care about philosophical consistency in their art, knowing their blue checkmark will exonerate them.
In an ocean of uninspired, bland franchise films that take no risks, “Stuber” stands as a monument to the arrogance and privilege of Hollywood elites; it’s okay for them to laugh at groups of people or controversial topics because they consider themselves “allies,” but anyone else who partakes in or contributes to these comedic spaces is problematic, hateful, or on the wrong side of history.