Monday, July 22, 2019

Raging Homophobia in "Stuber" Exemplifies the Moral Hypocrisy of Hollywood

In a rare useful film, Nanjiani and Bautista accidentally expose Hollywood elitism: it’s OK for them as “allies” to mock protected groups, but anyone else caught doing so is a bigot.

I’ll cut to the chase. The new comedy Stuber from the director of Goon is one of the most anti-gay—or homophobic, in the ungainly parlance of my generation—movies I’ve seen come out of this millennium, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even if it does scrape by as a mostly serviceable and sterile buddy cop excursion, Stuber constitutes a bright and 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 personality of star Kumail Nanjiani, whose predilection for using Twitter as a soapbox inevitably creates a sizable gap between his public persona and his career choices. The Pakistani-American comedian has long exploited his limited capital from the best show on television (Silicon Valley) and his effective immunity as a member of the establishment to take pot shots at conservatives online, railing against transgender jokes, Harambe jokes, mockery of celebrities, police shootings, and fellow liberals who don’t cleave absolutely to the Democrat plantation.

As venomous and fraudulent and brazenly anti-semitic as the actor’s greatest hits have sounded, Nanjiani also possesses enough shrewdness as a comedian to realize when he should cut his losses and cover up his less tenable comments, thus complicating the preparation of this article. Even conservative entertainment sites have failed to document the actor’s views on sexuality, preferring to amplify his noticeable suffering from Nazi Derangement Syndrome. Without detailing the unbroken timeline of every patronizing tweet Nanjiani has penned or the less 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 soy boy 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 has an iPod loaded with “everything”, 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 also has a strong case of the notgays, struggling to express his feelings to his long-time girl friend as she appears to be getting involved with a black man—a subplot for which I shouldn’t have to spell out the unspoken racial baggage.

On the other side of the masculinity spectrum falls the muscle-bound and spartan Bautista, whom I suspect general audiences will only vaguely recognize as Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy. LAPD officer Vic Manning is the apotheosis of stone cold beefcake (it’s even encoded in his name) yet is made dependent on Stu’s driving after undergoing laser eye surgery renders him legally blind. The personality clash between these two figures—a sniveling nu-male wiseass 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 whatever’s on its mind.

The arguable centerpiece of Stuber’s hilarity plays out in a gay strip club, where Vic is promptly lavished with unrequited attention. 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 tempts derision in other ways besides his political self-erasure, mainly by his total spinelessness around his female boss 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 towards the protagonists reevaluating their life choices, 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.

As all buddy movies with any cultural impact seem to have, Stuber comes to a break-up scene in the third act, wherein the two friends of less than a day verbalize all their grievances with each other, have a fight in Stu’s closed store, and make up. Director Michael Dowse accentuates the subliminal homoeroticism common in 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 instinctively mistakes their posture for a consummation. 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 homophobia. The store owner is obviously compensating for crippling insecurity in his own masculinity by diminishing that of his co-worker, defensively resorting to anti-gay signaling as a reflex. 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 one of the most sad and pitiable. Still, none of these character defects change the reality that we are, in the moment, 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 myriad ways Stuber makes light of police brutality, recklessness, or corruption and reorient myself to its actual filmic merits. As the archetypal burly cop and disconnected dad who must learn the importance of family, 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 (coincidentally, neither one knows how to pronounce “cavalry”). The stature-based stunt casting in Stuber feels more organic than, say, the pairing of Kevin Hart and The Rock in Central Intelligence. Bautista brings the perfect mix of incredulity and disappointment to Vic’s banter with Stu, delightfully lampooning the latter’s media-warped perception of law enforcement. “You think that when a gun is fired you can jump in front of the bullet?” he says with a quizzical look shortly after they become acquainted. Nanjiani is also in fine comedic form playing a character all too typical for himself. At its best, Stuber serves as a springboard for the comedian to deliver zingers like “Douche Lundgren” or 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 way 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 and Guardians of the Galaxy, yet unceremoniously dispatches her after six minutes of screen time. More offensively, 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, with nondescript blocking and egregious shaky cam that obscure the Raid actor’s athleticism. As an action-comedy, Stuber bungles half of its raison d’être, committing to the most absurd concepts for mayhem one can find outside of a comic-book movie. Around the middle of the film, 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 homosexuals while participating in a film that finds 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 that classic from becoming one of the most successful and quintessentially American comedies of all time. It’s unfortunate to see a generation of artists either so detached from the final cause of comedy—to address real problems in a safe and unifying medium—or so assured of their moral superiority that they don’t care about philosophical consistency in their art, knowing their blue check mark will exonerate them of any forbidden jokes.

In an ocean of uninspired, bland franchise films that take no risks, Stuber stands as a rare and teachable monument to the arrogance and privilege of Hollywood elites; it’s OK for them to laugh at protected 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, on the wrong side of history, etc. It’s only fitting that the homophobic, backwards, toxically masculine masses of the country should stay home and condemn Stuber to implode as Disney-Fox’s second consecutive bomb after Dark Phoenix.

Have interconnected franchise films driven the big-screen comedy into effective extinction, or have Americans just grown tired of puritanical authoritarians masquerading as comedians who blather on endlessly about “hate speech” and the various -isms and don’t even believe in comedy? I think the rejection of Stuber suggests the latter.

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