Man and Stuberman
Kumail Nanjiani’s new Uber-based buddy flick, Stuber, says a lot about woke masculinity, economic precarity, and the death of the old-school "taxi movie." It’s also not very good.
Stuber, the new action-comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani as an Uber driver named Stu and Dave Bautista as a cop who commands his services, joins an exclusive club of movies that bring product placement into their very title. Because Nanjiani is very funny and Bautista is compellingly large, this is a more enjoyable movie than, say, the 1988 cult bomb Mac and Me, which features an elaborate dance scene at a McDonald’s. Still, critics are complaining that Stuber functions as a long commercial for Uber. We don’t know what sort of agreements were made between the ride-share company and 20th Century Fox behind closed doors, but let’s just say I got sick enough of hearing the word “Uber” dozens of times in ninety-three minutes that from here on out I’ll be referring to the movie as Clyft.
Yes, all the Uber talk in Clyft is annoying. But the movie is a more interesting cultural product than a simple instance of corporate synergy between Northern and Southern California. Stu is part of a lineage of cinematic cabbies drawn into a violent criminal world that stretches back to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. But his status as a contract worker for Uber changes his relationship to the urban streetscape, to the point that it structures the entire plot of Clyft. And at a time of crisis for Hollywood comedies — a dry spell that, based on opening weekend returns, Clyft seems unlikely to break — the movie attempts to chart a course for the buddy-cop flick out of the brutish masculine tropes for which the genre is known. Clyft presents a woke male sensibility incongruously superimposed against a backdrop of staggering levels of police violence and centered on the emotional demands of the traditionally feminized, low-wage, heavily surveilled service sector of the economy.
From Taxi Driver (1977) to Conspiracy Theory (1997) to Collateral (2004), the taxi driver has been cast in the role of a latter-day flaneur, that prototypically modern type who ambles through the city, observing its condensed forms of social life while remaining aloof from its rhythms. While the flaneur walked the streets, the cabbie zoomed by in relative automotive isolation, punctuated by intimate interactions with their fares. The drivers in most of the taxi movies don’t own their cars or medallions outright, and they follow the general rules of their industry — until they break them in spectacular fashion — but the nature of the job meant they had wide discretion over how they worked. That partial autonomy, along with the intermittent solitude, gave them plenty of time to theorize about the human condition. The cabbies, whether deranged nihilists like Travis Bickle or hopeful humanists like Jamie Foxx’s Max in Collateral, were a kind of autodidact philosopher class, free to bounce ideas off customers or their fellow drivers at the garage or the diner.
Stu doesn’t have the time or space for that sort of free-ranging intellectual development. He leaves his retail job at a big-box sporting goods store and immediately starts taking fares for this “nights and weekends” gig. When on break, he is on his phone using other apps, stalking his crush’s Instagram feed. He has no connection with his fellow drivers, and no dispatcher checking in when he doesn’t return to the garage on time. He does talk to his customers, but with a rehearsed friendliness that will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked a job where the customer can threaten to “talk to the manager.”
The “manager” in this case is the star rating system. Stu knows that if his rating drops enough, Uber will terminate his contract. And as ride-share drivers have explained over and over, there is virtually no appealing a low rating, regardless of whether it had anything to do with the driver’s actions or not. Stu brings this labor problem to comedic heights. He begs and cajoles for five-star ratings; his vanity plates read fivestar. And Bautista’s character, an LAPD detective named Vic, more or less holds Stu hostage through the threat of lowering his average rating to fireable levels. Clyft is like Speed if, instead of needing to keep the bus moving above fifty miles per hour, the driver needed to keep his account above four stars.
We should be careful not to equate gig-economy conditions with the entire US labor market. As Doug Henwood has argued in these pages, the more typical problem right now isn’t precarious status of the 1099 worker, cobbling together multiple part-time jobs, but the crappy conditions and pay faced by a far greater number of workers — who, even with actual employee status, can be fired at will without a union contract. But there’s no exaggerating the devastating effects of Uber and Lyft on the taxi industry, beset by a wave of personal bankruptcies and suicides. Clyft is as good an indication as any of how ride-share companies have destroyed a particular way of urban life. And the combination of low wages and intensive forms of surveillance now hold over a much broader swath of the economy.
But Clyft’s depiction of working for a ride-share company is neither a gigified nightmare nor a sober telling of how work sucks more generally. Instead, it echoes the talking points of Uber and Lyft. Stu is driving as a second, part-time job just long enough to save enough money to start a business with his long-time unrequited love, which he does successfully during the course of the movie. Collateral, which is also about a cabbie held hostage by a professional murderer, at least had the decency to tell us that Max’s dream of opening his own limo company was little more than a fantasy. In Clyft, driving an Uber is presented as a bad job but also as a means of capital accumulation. That shattered my suspension of disbelief more than the propane tank that self-ignited while lodged in someone’s face.
The working conditions of the Uber driver are submerged beneath the surface of Clyft’s narrative, but the movie mostly follows a standard formula of a mismatched duo fighting to bring down a criminal syndicate. The clichés come fast and furious: a dead partner, crooked cops, meddling feds, casual police brutality up to and including torture and murder, and personal redemption and growth through violent retribution.
With masculinity experiencing some weird times, a number of Hollywood action films have followed a similar approach to reconciling the revenge story with contemporary sensibilities: employing middle-aged actors like Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, or Bruce Willis to protect women while quietly projecting the traumatic aftereffects of the violence they’ve inflicted on countless bad guys.
That formula wouldn’t work as well for Clyft, whose cultural references — spin classes, a sriracha factory — point to a younger core audience, and whose star, Nanjiani, is known for his liberal views. His character Stu is instead a model of sensitivity. He criticizes “problematic” statements made by Vic, openly notes how the cop’s vigilantism violates the law, and encourages him to get in touch with his emotions. (“You’re the coward,” he yells at one point to Vic. “You can’t face your own feelings.”)
Would you believe that Stu and Vic both learn something from one another? Intersecting character arcs are the bread and butter of the buddy genre, and Stu is far from the first wimpy character reluctantly made an accomplice to violence who comes out stronger in the end. But in Clyft these arcs can be insidious. Stu reconciles himself to what is essentially a lawless one-man drug war by saying, out loud, that he supposes heroin is really bad, especially when you’re selling it to kids. He teaches Vic the power of collaboration by inviting him to call more police to a gun battle with dealers. And he persuades Vic to stop physically torturing a suspect for information by instead hijacking the victim’s Twitter feed and posting some loving content about Ryan Gosling. He weaponizes the tough guy’s homophobia.
Clyft teaches us that more sensitive police are more effective police, while excusing any bad behavior as the result of daddy issues. It even gestures at the benefits of mindfulness and emotional reflection in dealing with stressful working conditions. Stu’s livelihood depends on the sort of emotional regulation that has long been associated with “women’s work,” whether inside the home or outside it. Stu’s experiences suggest that beneath every hard male exterior is a man longing to get in touch with his sensitive side. The movie is a case study in the tactical appropriation of femininity.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Nanjiani lamented the state of the film industry: studios banking on big-budget franchises, audiences moving away from theaters, an overabundance of mediocre content. It’s easy enough for sentimental cinephiles (I’m one of them) to indulge in these sorts of complaints. And Nanjiani is a gifted comedic actor. But movies like Clyft are the worst sort of argument for a return to the pre-streaming-service days. There are still many vital movies worth seeing. But rather than delivering a woke redressing of vigilante cop tropes, why not blow up a form that has run cover for conservative politics in the United States for decades? And if the era of the cabbie-philosopher, always something of a myth but one rooted in real conditions of work in urban life, has passed, we need a cinema true to the ways people work and survive and think today, rather than a rehash of tired stories of entrepreneurial success. Movies that attempt half-hearted rejuvenations of cliché teach us that there’s nothing novel to see here, that we should content ourselves with the fading glow of nostalgia. They blind us to all the signs of the new — whether encouraging or distressing — in our midst.