Monday, April 15, 2024

Film Review: ‘Father Stu’: Tough-Guy Priest Sacrifices All for St. Mary

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Set for an Easter Sunday release, “Father Stu” is a faith-based biopic starring Mark Wahlberg, about the life and times of priest Stuart Long. Father Long’s irrepressible, can-do energy helped him battle numerous physical setbacks, so he could continue to serve humankind however he was able.

Now, generally speaking, Wahlberg is at his best when he’s in physically menacing, sullen, sarcastic alpha mode, such as ex-Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger in “Shooter.” When he tries to gin up energy for a higher gear of, say, motor-mouthed cheeriness, it’s never a good idea. It’s a wonder his agent and/or manager never said, “Do not do roles where you have to talk fast.” Maybe they have. Not that it matters. Wahlberg generally makes bank at the box office.

That said, the life of Stuart Long is interesting in and of itself, and while the movie doesn’t register high on the entertainment scale, it touches upon issues of faith and religion that those who are interested in such things will have a few bones to gnaw thoughtfully upon. And to his credit, Wahlberg does have a couple of short, dramatic scenes that are astoundingly potent.

Youth
Growing up in Montana, the movie opens with young Stuart doing a living room rendition of The King in his socks and underwear for his dad Bill (Mel Gibson). He gets shot down in that shockingly blunt way paternal alcoholic narcissists have that makes you want to collect the lot of them in shipping containers and offload the entire species to the bottom of the ocean.

With his hopes of becoming the next Elvis thus forever dashed, Stu turns instead to his physical prowess and becomes a boxer. But Stu’s pugilistic career is eventually derailed by medical issues. Not really that disappointing, as portrayed in the film, since Stu clearly wasn’t making it and was going to have to hang up the gloves soon anyway.

Stu’s a highly enthusiastic, if naïve fellow, a bit like the character of Toad in “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”; he’s always off on the next adventure with much pep and optimism, impervious to warnings and talk of common sense. “Isn’t it a little late to try that?” inquires Stu’s mom (Aussie actress Jacki Weaver, a dead ringer lookalike of American actress Sally Struthers) regarding Stu’s subsequent aspirations to become a movie star. Nope. Off Stu goes to Hollywood. There will be no blue-collar career for this man, he insists. Of course, showbiz being the most insanely difficult career path in the world, he ends up selling meat in a grocery store.

Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) is the devout Catholic who makes the future Father Stu start attending church, in “Father Stu.” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing)
While ambitious and outgoing, Stu’s attempts to do showbiz networking from behind the poultry counter are dismally inadequate, but he does manage to land a mop commercial. One day, in walks an attractive customer (Teresa Ruiz). Stu’s all over her like white on rice; won’t leave her alone. Wahlberg doesn’t really have the debonair leading-man charm required to pull off this sort of thing. Or perhaps there just wasn’t enough chemistry happening with Ruiz, and so it’s not believable that she, Carmen, the prototypical good Catholic girl, finally succumbs to Stu’s mega-cheesy, stalker-ish behavior, and that they end up in a relationship.

Here’s a good line though: When her strict Mexican father tells Stu he better be prepared to crawl on his hands and knees to cater to his daughter’s comfort or there’s going to be a problem, Stu quips, “Good thing I just bought a carpet then!” Dad’s slow on the uptake, but when he gets it, Stu’s his boy.

Path to the Priesthood
Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) is a fish out of water when he starts going to church for the sole purpose of winning Carmen’s approval, in “Father Stu.” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing)
Naturally, Stu, in his attempts to woo Carmen, has to go to church and pretend to like it. But church grows on him. And (talk about your rude awakenings) in the aftermath and carnage of a horrendous motorcycle accident, St. Mary comes to Stu in a vision. He suddenly decides to become a priest. But such a path calls for sacrifice, and one such sacrifice is Carmen.

Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) soon to have an accident leading to a vision of St. Mary, in “Father Stu.” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing)
This is also not particularly believable, as portrayed. What eventually allows the biographical truth of this to hit home for us is Stu’s mother berating Carmen for introducing Stu to the church: “This is not somebody who does anything in half-measures!!” But overall, we don’t get to experience, with him, the huge sacrifice required for the full-on, daunting, weighty vow of celibacy of the Catholic priesthood. Especially since Carmen has sinned drastically to get Stu interested in the idea of marriage. And he was, of course, subsequently definitely interested.

And again, while there is no deep, lengthy devotion in the film for portraying the profound loss needed to gain spiritual advancement (on par with, say, “The Song of Bernadette”), when Stu gets blindsided with yet another medical ailment, his turning to God in desperation in a dark night of the soul is a truly powerful, exceptionally well-acted scene. Overall though, the flavor is less “The Robe,” and has more in common, tone-wise, of something like the comedy “Sister Act.”

Stu Long (Mark Wahlberg) sitting in on one of Carmen’s classes on Ash Wednesday, in “Father Stu.” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing)
The whole section of Stu and his slow assimilation of religion is handled comedically, since comedy relies in most instances on juxtaposed extremes, which in this case is Stu’s prodigious potty-mouth, butted up against his newly embraced ecclesiastical surroundings, and then later, his newly acquired zealotry going up against his dad’s own potty-mouthed atheism.

To Sum Up
The film is mostly undramatic and the plotting and pacing allow enough gaps in the necessary cohesive tension of good storytelling to allow tedium to gather. However, the casting of Mel Gibson is interesting.

Bill Long (Mel Gibson) is Father Stu’s mean-tempered alcoholic father in “Father Stu.” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing)
Gibson destroyed his showbiz career with an alleged drunken, anti-semitic rant and a later racist rant (not to mention a few homophobic scenes in his movies), going on a decade ago. He is, however, also a member of a strict, fundamentalist brand of Catholicism and it’s rumored that it was the ultra-conservative outlook thereof that was the real problem the largely Jewish mover/shaker Hollywood community had with him. Wahlberg and Gibson’s Catholicism sync up seamlessly, since there’s a line that’s pointedly derogatory regarding Jews at the crucifixion, which echoes Gibson’s own, self-directed “The Passion of the Christ.”

To be fair, Gibson is very good. That’s because he’s still the same Mel Gibson who used to rule the box office like few other movie stars. Even when playing a loutish dad who shows us exactly where Stu’s shortcomings come from, Gibson’s presence is still able to burn a hole in the silver screen.

Father Stu (Mark Wahlberg) finally becomes a priest in “Father Stu.” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing)
Besides Gibson, the best thing “Father Stu” has going for it is the fact that Stu wears his heart on his sleeve, is salt of the earth, and is a priest of the people. Favorite scene: Stu and a rather effeminate colleague lead a prison Mass for the predominantly black inmate congregation. His colleague of the cloth immediately puts his foot in his mouth, racially speaking. It’s about to get contentious when Stu, with his boxer street cred, just gets real. Everyone calms down, and some pithy spiritual talk is able to happen. This sort of thing is the genuine Mark Wahlberg acting power-alley.

Father Stu (Mark Wahlberg) after having gained weight due a debilitating disease, in “Father Stu.” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing)
Father Stu is clearly intended to be inspirational; Christian audiences and church groups will appreciate it deeply. However, it must be said that there’s a good reason for the R-rating: Stu, prior to wearing the collar, might as well have been a sailor regarding the volume of his cursing. Even in the seminary, he wafts about an aural cloud of expletive-laden blasphemy. This is, of course, a big part of the movie’s sincerity and one that makes both Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson perfect casting choices; this is manly-man priest territory.

Gibson (and probably also the rapper formerly known as Marky-Mark) likes to curse a lot, and go to church a lot. I’ve personally always appreciated non-pious priests with a slight edge of blaspheming irreverence and a healthy sense of humor; it’s been my experience that these are the guys with the biggest hearts. But so maybe don’t take kids under the age of 12.

Movie poster for “Father Stu.”
‘Father Stu’

Director: Rosalind Ross

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, Malcolm McDowell

MPAA Rating: R

Release Date: April 8, 2022

Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars for thought-provoking content; 2.5 for execution 

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