Kumail Nanjiani gets behind the wheel in ‘Stuber’
Stu, the hero of “Stuber,” has a lot to stew about. The comedy opens July 12. An Uber driver, he picks up a fare who turns out to be a police detective in hot pursuit of a drug dealer. Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick,” 2017) plays Stu. That could be pretty funny. Dave Bautista (Drax, in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Avengers” movies) plays Vic, the detective. That could be even funnier. More accurately, what could be even funnier is the collision between two such wildly different characters.
When it comes to movies in which automobiles loom large, “collision” can take on multiple meanings. (Only a month until “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” opens: Order your tickets and schedule your lube job now.) But that’s especially true with driver movies, of which “Stuber” is the latest example.
There have been a lot of actors behind someone else’s wheel. Think of Betty Garrett’s gender-bending cab driver, in “On the Town” (1949); De’voreaux White’s limo driver helping save the day, in “Die Hard” (1988) ); or Hector Elizondo, as Joe the chauffeur, squiring around Anne Hathaway in the two “Princess Diaries” movies (2001, 2004).
But a driver movie is more specific than that. It’s a movie with a protagonist who makes a living behind the wheel. The star drives the car, the car drives the movie. Sometimes that car is a taxi (in the case of “Stuber,” an Uber — how long before there’s a film called “Lyft Off”?). Sometimes the car is a town car or limousine — in which case the movie tends to be a two-hander, with billing honors shared by the person driving and the person being driven. Sometimes the car is a getaway car. So, technically, that also makes it a crime movie, only on four wheels: the fast and the felonious.
“Collateral” (2004), which falls under the taxi heading, could be “Stuber” inside out. Jamie Foxx spends the movie with an even more difficult passenger than Nanjiani does. Instead of a cop, he’s a hit man. That’s inside out. Instead of being played by Bautista, he’s played by Tom Cruise — with gray hair. That’s really inside out.
The classic driver movie, cabbie division, has the most basic title. “Taxi Driver” (1976) stars Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle. He cruises through an apocalyptic New York in his yellow Checker Cab, part Midwestern misfit, part avenging angel. In a nice touch, Martin Scorsese, who directed, plays one of Travis’s more memorable passengers. In the movie’s most famous line, Travis says, “You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here.” Fortunately, he’s not driving when he says it, since that would mean he doesn’t have any fare.
There’s an additional twist to “I’m the only one here.” Often a taxi driver isn’t the only one there on screen. Cabbies don’t necessarily come individually wrapped. Or wrapped too tight. Plurality and oddity help drive the Emmy-winning sitcom “Taxi” (1978-’83) and “D.C. Cab” (1983). Both testify to how driving a cab can drive a driver crazy.
Oddity is evident in Jim Jarmusch’s anthology film “Night on Earth” (1991), but it’s much a matter of plurality. Each of its five episodes centers on a cabbie in a different city: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, Helsinki. In LA, Winona Ryder plays the driver — a distant nod to Garrett in “On the Town”? In Rome, it’s Roberto Benigni behind the wheel. His passenger is a man of the cloth — which means that, yes, the set-up is, “So a priest enters a cab. . . .”
Cabs are democratic as limousines and town cars are not. So it’s fitting that the two best-known movies about chauffeurs hinge on inequality. Those two movies, “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) and “Green Book” (2018), are so well-known, in part, because both won a best-picture Oscar
In “Daisy,” Morgan Freeman plays Jessica Tandy’s driver in civil rights-era Atlanta. The movie’s based on Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, so it has a pedigree to go with its tidy social conscience. A tidy social conscience is to the Academy’s sweet spot what a hammer is to a nail.
“Green Book,” also set in the civil rights era, is road trip rather than regular local commute. Pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is black, so he hires a white guy from the Bronx (Viggo Mortensen) to drive him through the segregated South. The role reversal, which is inspired by an actual situation, gets played for all it’s worth. The only thing the Academy swoons over more than a tidy social conscience is a self-congratulatory tidy social conscience.
What every driver really wants to do is just drive. This is the attraction that the getaway-driver movie has for driver and audience both: a need for speed. If Ryan Gosling’s anonymous man behind the wheel in “Drive” (2011) were any more existentially enigmatic — or enigmatically existential — he’d be Jean-Paul Sartre’s chauffeur. That would be a very different movie, and what exactly would Sartre be doing in LA? That said, “Driving and Nothingness ” would be one helluva title.
“Baby Driver” (2017) is set in a very different Atlanta from the one found in “Driving Miss Daisy,” and Ansel Elgort gets to handle a set of wheels with a NASCAR virtuosity (speaking of Atlanta) that Morgan Freeman can only dream of. Who knows, maybe he does. Say this for being a getaway driver: It means that speeding tickets are the least of your legal problems.
The one thing that all of these movies have in common, beyond matters automotive, is that none of them features the actor who was born to star in them: Adam Driver. True, he’s behind the wheel of a bus in “Paterson” (2016), but that’s not quite the same thing, is it?