Rosalind Ross’ Father Stu can’t decide what film it wants to be. Is it the unorthodox story of a man coming to terms with aging, or is it the fish-out-of-water story of a man who shouldn’t be a priest joining the priesthood? This lack of vision turns the film into a tonal mishmash, but one that is inherently watchable.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Stuart “Stu” Long, an amateur boxer approaching middle age in Montana. Frequently drunk and delinquent, Stu looks to turn his life around by moving to Los Angeles to become an actor.
Unable to immediately find his big break, Stu begins working the deli counter at a grocery store. One day, he meets Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a deeply Catholic girl who rebuffs his persistent advances. Stu pursues her all the way to her church, where he volunteers in order to continue his pursuit.
Stu runs afoul with the law again which earns him a DUI and an impound of his car. In order to make an audition, he attempts to reconnect with his estranged father Bill (Mel Gibson), much to the chagrin of his mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver).
Despite her protests, Stu attempts to woo Carmen with increasing activity in the church. Following a terrible motorcycle accident, Stu comes to the realization that his life would best be served in the priesthood. Nothing can stand in his way, except everyone trying to stop him.
Based on the true story, Father Stu is a story about redemption and change. Stu’s entire arc is about the capacity for growth in someone who hasn’t followed a churchly path. Nothing Stu does is anything more than light shenanigans. He drives drunk, but he doesn’t hurt anyone. Stu talks back to cops, but it’s always questioning their authority on moral grounds. He is arrested for public intoxication, but he’s alone and punches a statue of Jesus. His redemption is easy because he never falls very far.
When he turns to the priesthood, that devilish scamp that the world has always known is still there. Not only does it never really go away, Stu is lauded for his relatability to non-traditional churchgoers. Bad language or attempts at sex are shrugged off or downright ignored. The only judgement Stu receives is in the form of righteous retribution.
In the third act of the film, Stu receives a drastic medical diagnosis. While the film could have explored potentially interesting narrative alleys, the filmmakers play it as safely as possible. This is all just a means to an end for a man that wanted to serve the church. These constant genre deviations can’t put the film on firm ground.
Wahlberg is aptly suited to play a cursing, delinquent boxer. The first half of the movie, which features Stu in a pre-church state, is exactly the persona Wahlberg excels at. His devil-may-care attitude about life and authority suit the character well. When the film shifts to Stu’s priesthood, Wahlberg says all the right things, but it never feels genuine. Stu’s fervent belief in his path is evident from his persistence, but everything he says is conveyed as an act being put on. His turn is too abrupt.
Gibson, who has been popping up in forgettable action movies, returns to his movie star persona which he built his career on. It’s not a question of whether Gibson was good enough after his public persona overtook his on-screen profile, but it was whether he cared enough. Gibson is fully invested in the role and makes a one-note character much more complex and charismatic that what was on the page. That doesn’t mean an audience will buy it, but his commitment and effort is on display for a change.
Weaver is reduced to a worrying mother, but she makes the most of her limited options. Ruiz’ character gets the short-shaft in the narrative, but her likeability and grace are ever-present. Aaron Moten portrays one of Stu’s fellow potential priests and is a welcome sight each time he appears.
The filmmakers have their hearts in the right place with Father Stu, but focuses on the broad strokes of Stu’s life means there are too many twists and turns. The story is too outlandish to believe, but the film is too straightforward to accept. Don’t be surprised if audiences thirsty for the rare R-rated faith-based drama show up in droves.
Father Stu is now in theaters