'Father Stu' review: Mark Wahlberg undergoes a spiritual awakening in tepid melodrama
Courtesy of Sony
There comes a point midway through Rosalind Ross’ “Father Stu,” where you ask yourself what drew heavyweight A-lister Mark Wahlberg to this project. Faith based movies in general are tough sells to anyone outside of the targeted demographic, maybe the Oscar nominee thought he would convert skeptics? Whatever the answer, “Father Stu” isn’t a compelling feature film. Based on the true story of former boxer Stuart Long, who became an actor in several commercials and then underwent a spiritual transformation, finding God and deciding to become a priest, “Father Stu” is uneven and never makes sense of the story it’s trying to tell. Instead, this commendable individual who turned his disappointing life around gets a rather unremarkable biopic treatment.
Those who fit within the mold of the “Faith Based” audience or devoured religious hits released from the Pure Flix label probably won’t find much qualms with “Father Stu” other than the foul language which earns the film a not-so Chrisitan friendly R rating. But anyone on the outside of the church spectrum trying to tap into the story won’t find much beyond preachy melodrama and a so-so performance from Wahlberg. It might have worked if not for questionable decisions (including the use of a distracting fat suit) in the latter half that adds insult to injury.
The story chronicles the adversity Stuart endured: from his meteoric rise and subsequent fall as an amateur boxer to aspiring movie actor which landed him in hot water with the law. But what pushed him on the path toward Jesus when all he could do was poke fun at religion? According to the movie, it was to win over a devout Catholic Hispanic woman (Teresa Ruiz) who convinced him to get baptized. But his spiritual awakening blossoms into something far greater than she could have imagined when, on what feels like a whim, he decides to become a pastor. It’s a major shift that, even though we already know it’s coming, still feels unorthodox, but those showing up probably won’t care for things like plausible narrative progression and tend to overlook quick montage edits.
It highlights a major problem with “Father Stu” in that it moves rather quickly between life events, including Stuart's troubled relationship, which the movie then tries to awkwardly salvage, with his estranged parents (Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver) that began after a horrific family tragedy during childhood. Evident by how glossy and artificial the material is approached, “Father Stu” hopes to jumpstart dialogues on conversions and forgiveness. Wahlberg, to his credit, showcases Stuart’s charm without overplaying his hand in that textbook Marky-Mark nice guy persona, meanwhile Gibson attempts to emulate emotional heft though Ross’ script doesn’t allow much wiggle room beyond the classic “I was a bad father” inferiority complex.
“Father Stu” never diminishes Stuart Long’s accomplishment so much as it doesn’t let them sink in. I understand he was someone who used a different verbiage than traditional priests, but that can’t be all, can it? The movie never makes a case for its existence besides Wahlberg looking for an awards vehicle, which makes you wonder if he’s removed from the equation, does “Father Stu” still get made? Perhaps, and maybe it doesn’t feel as half-hazardly constructed and finds commonality for all audiences.
FATHER STU opens in theaters Wednesday, April 13th.