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Father Stu Movie Review

Father Stu (2022) movie poster
Father Stu

Theatrical Release: April 13, 2022 / Running Time: 124 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Rosalind Ross

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Father Stuart Long), Mel Gibson (Bill Long), Jacki Weaver (Kathleen Long), Teresa Ruiz (Carmen), Niko Nicotera (Barfly), Cody Fern (Jacob), Malcolm McDowell (Monsignor)

 

A household name for over thirty years and a leading man for more than twenty-five, Mark Wahlberg has had a surprisingly stable and straightforward career in film. Transitioning from underwear model and hip hop singer to respectable film star is an extraordinary accomplishment and the fact that Wahlberg has never looked back is hard to believe. His controversies -- a violent criminal youth, a regrettable interview about 9/11 -- have been weathered with seeming ease and he somehow endures as an unobjectionable and slowly-aging celebrity.
The odds are fairly high that you've encountered him in a supermarket in the form of a life-size cardboard standee promoting his protein powder or his mostly nominal status within the Wahlburger's family business. If not, he's surely watched you check out your groceries from one of the countless covers of Men's Health magazine he's graced.

For someone with his staying power, influence, and wealth, Wahlberg has not pursued passion projects as frequently as you'd expect. "Entourage", loosely based on his inner circle, was his first foray into behind-the-scenes work and he's since racked up more than forty producing credits, a mixture of movies he's also starred in (his inspirational true dramas for director Peter Berg including Lone Survivor and Patriots Day) and cable television series he believes in (like HBO's "Ballers", "Boardwalk Empire", and "McMillions"). In between these ventures, there is a steady stream of big, easy mainstream paydays, such as the Ted and Transformers franchises.

Wahlberg's latest film, Father Stu, does not fit neatly into any of these classes. It's an unmistakable passion project with some mainstream box office potential, its closest forebear likely being The Fighter, David O. Russell's flavorful, Academy Award-winning drama that was so much more than a boxing movie. Russell was attached to this when first announced back in 2016, but exited sometime along the way and the absence of his humor and humanity is impossible not to lament here.

Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) accompanies Stuart (Mark Wahlberg) on a doctor's visit that does not bode well for his amateur boxing career.

Father Stu tells the true story of Stuart Long (Wahlberg), a rough-edged Bostonian with few job prospects after an injury ends his not particularly remarkable amateur boxing career. Stu moves out to Los Angeles to become an actor, settling for a job at a grocery store deli counter where he tries to self-promote. His life course is changed when his eyes are caught by Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a devout Catholic woman he sees buying food. Undeterred by her vocal disinterest, he tracks her down to the predominantly Latinx community church she attends and teaches Sunday school.

Stu is so driven by his feelings towards Carmen that he agrees to get baptized and to wait to have sex with her. Stu improbably seems to be charming the kind, soft-spoken Carmen (and her tight-knit family) right down the wedding aisle, so it comes as a great surprise to all when he instead announces that he believes his true calling lies in the priesthood.

It's utterly rare to see a Hollywood film consider faith, let alone religious vocation. When the subject comes up, it is usually in awful, amateurish productions funded by southern megachurches (or every thirty or so years, a Martin Scorsese hard sell). So, Father Stu is certainly different and refreshingly so. Unfortunately, it's not all that good. Despite having its heart in the right place, this R-rated drama unfolds with a strange blend of corny and crass humor. The mix was well-received by my advance screening attended by more priests and seminarians than you've ever seen in a movie theater. But I found myself cringing far more often than chuckling.

Mark Wahlberg plays Stuart Long, an unlikely candidate for the priesthood in "Father Stu."

Both written and directed by Rosalind Ross, Father Stu marks the biggest credit to date for the longtime partner of Mel Gibson, who plays Stu's tormented, alcoholic father here. For better or worse, Gibson has long been perceived as Catholicism's foremost advocate in the movie business. It's hard to overstate the audacity of the seasoned movie star and Oscar-winning Braveheart director making The Passion of the Christ, a graphic retelling of Jesus' last days on Earth that will long stand as the highest-grossing independent (and non-English, for that matter) film of all-time. Gibson's numerous personal controversies are as close to being forgiven as they might ever be, having been eclipsed by unquestionably worse crimes by even more influential people in the industry.
His last time in the director's chair, 2016's Hacksaw Ridge, earned him an agreeable redemption Oscar nomination for Best Director. One suspects Father Stu would have been better with Gibson at the helm instead of his girlfriend, but in front of the camera, he gives the film its most touching and powerful moment.

Alas, the heavy lifting onscreen belongs to Wahlberg and while he clearly puts in more effort than he did on the recent and far more lucrative Uncharted, he struggles to imbue this would-be inspirational faith drama with the weight it demands. The result is tempting to classify as miscalculation, much like Wahlberg's previous art-over-money undertaking, last year's critically-reviled Joe Bell. Like that indie, Father Stu opens as far away from award season conversation as it can. It hardly seems coincidental the film opens during Holy Week, the lead-up to Easter being when church attendance ordinarily peaks. That timing is a blessing because it spares Wahlberg of the Oscar-chasing narrative you might otherwise attach to this picture, for which he gained thirty pounds and stretches himself physically to pull off.

There is much to admire about Father Stu, namely in Wahlberg and his castmates (which include Malcolm McDowell and Jacki Weaver) taking some chances creatively and not merely making another mindless diversion for the TikTok generation. But there is far less to like, the sloppy catechumen drama always feeling just a tad artificial, unconvincing, and, despite the origins, contrived.

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Reviewed April 11, 2022.



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