‘Stuber’ Is Likable Enough; ‘Self-Defense’ Is Dark; Tarantino’s Ninth Proves a Doozy

By BILL GEIGER | Aug 07, 2019

We all know humor is inherently personal. What one person finds funny is often different from another. The great comedians have found ways to mine that stratum of humor we all embrace and lay it out for us and, by doing so, make most of us laugh.

That said, our movies this week all strive to find those collective examples of humor in their stories. Some do, and some don’t.

Our first for consideration is “Stuber,” a buddy pic with a solid “fish out of water” angle. All the jokes may not be “laugh out loud” funny, but many do elicit at least a grin.

The name “Stuber” is a derogatory nickname given to main character Stuart, played by comic Kumail Nanjiani, by his manager in a sporting goods store, Richie Sandusky (Jimmy Tatro), owing to Stuart’s job moonlighting for Uber. Richie, you see, is something of a bully, and a racist, and taunts the quiet and reserved Stuart whenever the two are working together.

One day, he stops to pick up Vic Manning (Dave Bautista), an edgy, fidgety passenger who has Stuart drive him to multiple places, and to wait to pick him up again, continuing the ride. Stu finds this odd, and as his passenger is getting increasingly desperate, scary.

Vic finally announces himself as a police detective and tells Stu he’s on a case. What he doesn’t tell Stu is just that morning he had Lasik surgery and his eyes are dilated, so he cannot drive. But that morning he got a good lead on a case he’s been wanting to solve for several years. We are told in flashback that Vic lost his partner to the same killer, so he’s particularly intent on finding this perp, even though he should be resting his eyes, per doctor’s orders.

So, the farther they drive together, the further enmeshed in the case they get, with Stuart suffering the most to his fragile ego, and with Vic slowly getting his vision back. Stu and Vic begrudgingly become friends, and even pursue their culprit with each other’s help. Stu, the “fish out of water” whom Vic can count on more and more, grows in his understanding of detective work and its constant danger.

For his part, Bautista, who also plays Drax in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, seems to be the lesser of the professional wrestling émigrés into acting behind John Cena and The Rock. But his credibility is building, and he’s as likable as Nanjiani, albeit in a more abrasive way. “Stuber” is likable in a similar way, and there are enough funny moments to keep the film interesting.

Director Michael Dowse keeps Bautista on a short leash, and he’s developing nicely into a comic actor. Comic actors, however, are only as good as their sidekicks, and Kumail Nanjiani settles into that role quite agreeably. Though it’s not uber-funny, for a good summer laugh, go see “Stuber.”

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For an entirely different view of humor, see “The Art of Self-Defense,” a movie billed as a black comedy, though, truth be told, I found nothing funny in it at all. It’s a pretty interesting movie, and has some pretty tight, if not grim, storytelling, but for humor, any humor, I found nary a grin.

Now I know black comedy deals with tragic or distressing subject matter in a humorous way. In “The Art of Self-Defense,” the whole idea of self-defense, the way it is ultimately practiced by our protagonist, might be considered humorous, but it’s not a tragic thing, so is not black comedy.

More to the point, the film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey, a milquetoast corporate accountant who is mugged one night by a motorcycle gang on his way home from the grocery story after buying a bag of dog food. It was a pretty serious mugging, but after recuperating, he goes into a sporting goods store looking to buy a gun. Casey’s upset that it takes about six weeks to get the gun after background checks, and the next day he stops into a nearby karate dojo, listens to the charismatic sensei (Alessandro Nivola) explain away every societal ill that can be overcome by a knowledge of karate, and is convinced it is for him. He joins up and is soon “punching with his feet,” as the sensei commands, even though the command makes little sense. I looked for this to be funny, but alas, it was not.

Here, in this dojo of immense testosterone, where in other descriptions of this film I found the term “toxic masculinity” thrown about, Anna (Imogen Poots) is meant to refute that. I thought this might be funny. No dice.

The sensei learns that Casey is an accountant and recruits him to do the accounting for the dojo’s books, and Casey soon learns some of the other truths of the dojo, and of the sensei, and becomes more disillusioned. However, he had begun to use some of the intimidating tactics he learned at his place of employment, punching his boss in the throat, for instance, causing him to lose his job. I thought maybe that was supposed to be funny but found it not.

So, I looked for humor throughout “The Art of Self-Defense.” Casey eventually learns the “art” of self-defense, and maybe that was supposed to be funny. In a way, it was, but not funny “ha-ha”; rather funny in the self-justified, kind of smug way. I don’t want you to think I did not like “The Art of Self-Defense.” I did. It had a tight, interesting story, and director Riley Sterns, who wrote the piece, had a sure hand throughout, and perhaps the best actor he could have gotten to play Casey in Jesse Eisenberg, but also the best sensei (Nivola) and the best Anna (Poots).

So, see it for the interesting, small film that it is. Just don’t go in expecting guffaws. In that, you’ll be disappointed.

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Our final film is “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film and for my money, his masterpiece. He has hinted that he’ll only make about 10 films, but perhaps he’ll stop at nine, and if he does, no one will complain, for this ninth film is a doozy.

It is set in and around Hollywood and Los Angeles in the Year of Our Lord 1969, that crazy, cool, whacked-out year ending that crazy, cool, whacked-out decade, the year of Woodstock, the moon landing, the Stonewall riots in New York, the Mets beating the Orioles in the World Series, the Manson murders of Sharon Tate and five others in Hollywood.

It’s that final one that concerns “Once Upon a Time” for a prominent character in the film is Sharon Tate, played by an ebullient Margot Robbie. The Tate tale is just one part of the “bedtime story” and is Tarantino’s way of tying up all loose ends by the film’s conclusion.

In addition to Robbie’s Sharon Tate, who was a real person, the main characters in the film are two fictional types, one Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) and his best friend, stuntman/double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton an actor who saw his heyday about a decade ago in a western called “Bounty Law,” and Booth acting as his stand-in.

Early in the film Rick meets up with Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) in a restaurant. Marvin has Rick’s life all figured out. He feels that Rick should go to Italy and star in some of the new spaghetti westerns that were being filmed there (a la Clint Eastwood).

Cliff goes with Rick to Italy to see to all his belongings, and winds up coming home with Rick and with a lot more than they started out with, including his Italian bride. But before he goes to Italy, Cliff has some adventures of his own in Hollywood when he encounters some hippies, including Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who takes him to the Spahn Ranch, which Cliff remembers from filming westerns there a decade ago. Now the ranch is overrun with hippies.

This would be where the Manson collective lived.

Cliff gets a glimpse of Charles Manson one day when he is fixing Rick’s television antenna, as Manson cases the house next door to Rick’s place. Living there at the time was director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) with his wife Sharon Tate, neither of whom were home.

Manson smiles at Cliff, but no words are exchanged. Four of his acolytes would be coming back to murder whoever was in the house, but as we have learned from other Tarantino films, there would be some twists and turns to navigate through first. There would also be the “Once Upon a Time” formula to steer through.

Besides being a staple of how fairy tales begin, “Once Upon a Time” is also the name of a variety of films, one of which is “… in the West,” an echo of the westerns that Rick had made his name in. There is abundant humor in this film, Tarantino humor, where the audience would laugh out loud.

By evoking the year 1969 so well, with the music, the other cultural references, and the notion of Hollywood’s changing dynamic, Tarantino has given us a film, even with his own brand of violence thrown in, that’s a bedtime story for movie lovers. That’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”


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