Like about two-thirds of modern comedy, the word “shtick” filtered its way through our culture from the Yiddish-loving Borscht Belt scene. In the cultural translation from Deeply Jewish to Basic Cliché, its meaning has gotten muddled some: Its root technically means “piece” – so, in comedy terms, it probably just meant a bit, one part of a funny man’s repertoire. Over the years, though, it has come to stand in for the whole: The shtick isn’t even just your best-known part, it’s your sum, what defines you, the money-maker, the headline, the one thing everybody knows. In comedy – in life, really – people aren’t looking for the big, messy expanse of your soul. They just want that thing you do.
To the extent that director Michael Dowse has a bit, it might be as a kind of loving documentarian of dirt-bag behaviour. As the behind-the-camera co-creator of the Fubar series – probably Canada’s funniest film turned TV series and definitely its most accurate cinematic depiction of Alberta – he could take a road trip through every small-town dive bar from coast to coast to coast without ever needing to drop a dime on a drink. He has extended that talent for capturing poetically heinous language and enthusiastically bad decisions to Ibiza (the techno mockumentary It’s All Gone Pete Tong), hockey’s minor leagues (Goon, the best sports comedy of the decade) and, to a degree, his latest, Stuber (the ride-sharing action-comedy that actually counts as tamer than most of those other films, even with people getting their faces shot off). There’s even an undercurrent of poop jokes in the otherwise pointedly sentimental The F Word, one of the world’s most criminally underrated romantic comedies.
Mostly, though, Dowse’s shtick is just that he is consistently funny in a quiet, human way. Since Fubar first gave ‘er in 2002, Dowse has been a popular comedic director who has avoided either of the two dominant modes of his era of film comedy: He has done neither star vehicles that mad-lib singular personas (Ferrell, McCarthy, Rogen, Wiig) into increasingly wacky situations, nor the literalist scenario set-ups that shove interchangeable actors into a profoundly contrived version of whatever the title of the movie is (think the movies that usually start with “Bad” and star Jason Bateman). Considering the landscape, it might be less accurate to say Dowse makes comedies than he makes character studies that are usually incredibly funny.
“I like to think there’s a pretty consistent tone of comedy in what I’ve done, and I think most of that is a byproduct of empathy – if you get people laughing with the characters, you’re going to get them to care about them,” Dowse explains over the phone from his home in Montreal. “Your main currency as a director is being able to treat the performances and the writing with as much honesty as you can. … I think people can feel when something is being pushed – when all that someone is thinking about is landing a joke.”
Stuber is an interesting study in that. On the surface, and maybe left to other hands, it’s a thin premise: Stu (Kumail Nanjiani, perfectly cast) is a put-upon, essentially spineless Uber driver. Vic (Dave Bautista) is a hard-headed cop forcing Stu to help him crack a case. High jinks ensue. The movie isn’t without its contrivances, but even things such as comic exchanges that revolve around the particulars of Uber etiquette layer in character moments that make the jokes feel punchier. Dowse cracks a real chemistry between Nanjiani’s desperation and Bautista’s bull-headedness, playing them off each other in a way that elevates everything they’re doing.
The difficulty of finding human-level chemistry is the reason most big Hollywood comedies are stuck in their well-worn grooves: There’s no guarantee it will pop up, so the bet is either that the charisma of the big star everyone loves or the sufficient contrivance of the set-up will be enough to cover for its lack. Dowse’s ability to find it has been his true shtick, insomuch as something that subtle can be considered one. Fubar has built a franchise out of nothing more complex than two idiots hanging out together. Pete Tong crafts a love story between two deaf characters, the performances sharp enough that body language does the heavy lifting. Goon manages to capture both the bond of a hockey team and the complex respect between fellow goons, while also letting Seann William Scott show off his soft side.
The F Word might be the most instructive film, in this regard. Electric with just-before-they-were-famous turns by Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis and a leap by a post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe, it captures the sparks of a relationship that tries to stay friends, but is eventually overwhelmed by the depth of connection. The rareness of the main couple’s spark is akin to how hard it is to capture that kind of feeling on film, yet it’s something Dowse has managed in every film he’s made. (It’s hard to spot in Take Me Home Tonight, which was recut, delayed and then released with little promotion after Dowse wrapped it. Still, there are sparks of real human emotion in the film, albeit buried under the too-conventional comedy it was shoehorned into.) That sort of elusiveness makes it hard for Dowse himself to explain how you capture that chemistry onscreen.
“Well, I mean, I try to avoid [bad people] at all costs,” Dowse says with a laugh. “I think though I just try to let actors play. Going back to Fubar – I mean, that’s what Fubar was, essentially, and I’ve tried to learn how to do that more with every film. You prep and get your shot-list and get everything lit and then you just let them play through the characters for as much time as possible each day. Finding good people is the biggest part, but you also have to let them be creative.”
It doesn’t make for the most cohesive filmography, but letting people be themselves does at least seem to capture something you don’t often see onscreen.
Stuber opens July 12
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