FATHER STU – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



By  | 
Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) in Columbia Pictures’ FATHER STU.

Now here’s a new studio film release that seems a perfect fit for this time of year. After a bone-chilling winter, spring has finally, though rather slowly, arrived. For many folks, and nature-enthusiasts, it’s a time of rebirth and renewal. In the latter category, and in the wake of the big “health events”, lots of folks are considering a “do-over” or even a “fresh start”, mainly switching their line of work and professions. This aforementioned new flick has one of the most startling, and radical, “reboots” of one person’s life. A real-life, as this is based on a real person. Oh, and with Easter a few days away, the story will certainly resonate with its focus on faith. That’s because this tale is about Stuart Long, a boxer who becomes the priest known and loved as FATHER STU.

This bio actually begins many years before either profession, as pre-teen Stuart lipsyncs and dances to Elvis in his squalid living room, much to the chagrin of his bitter, boozing, chain-smoking pop, Bill (Mel Gibson). Flash forward to the late 1980s as adult Stuart (Mark Wahlberg), upon the recommendation of his doctor and encouraged by his worrying mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) finally puts away his boxing gloves. He stuns Mum with his new career plan: he’ll leave Montana and move to Hollywood to become a “big star”. But “tinsel-Town” doesn’t rush to put him on screen, so he works the meat counter at a grocery store. There he’s smitten by a beautiful shopper. She rebuffs his advances, but he finds a flier for her church that she’s posted on the store’s bulletin board, Though he’s not religious, and not a catholic, Stuart shows up for services and reconnects with Carmen (Teresa Ruiz). While courting her, he also looks up his long-estranged pop, who abandoned him and Kathleen to work construction in California. Then one night after “drowning his sorrows”, Stuart is almost fatally injured in a horrific traffic accident. After helping to nurse him back to health, Carmen finally takes their relationship to the “next level”. Later a very somber Stuart tells her that they “need to talk”. But rather than a proposal, he tells her that he wants to become a priest. But the road to the altar is fraught with spiritual and mental challenges, which are nothing compared to the new physical one that threatens to block his dreams of service to the church.

Wahlberg is in full “endearing average Joe” mode for his take on the much-beloved padre. Unlike his recent UNCHARTED he’s a bit unprepared for life’s curves and for the roadblocks to his goals (stardom, Carmen), but his charm and screen charisma have us rooting for him even as he “gets in over his head” since watching him “treading water” is often compelling. Plus Wahlberg can artistically handle all of Stuart’s story arcs (plural, as I’ll explain later). At the other extreme, Gibson is in his “grizzled, raging curmudgeon” lane, pushing his family and the audience aside, but still giving us a glimmer of hope for Bill’s redemption. Weaver’s the ideal working-class mother, protective of her boy, but not reluctant to challenge him on his often “out there” choices. Ruiz is more than the tale’s “object of affection” as she throws up a steep wall to thwart Stuart’s desires while gradually warming to the stubborn but sincere interloper of her ‘sacred sanctuary”. Plus she’s a very expressive reactor to Stuart’s radical religious interpretations while being baffled and more than a little hurt by his “calling”. And kudos to the casting of screen vet Malcolm McDowell who brings some much-needed gravitas to the role of the church hierarchy that makes Stuart jump through many hoops before allowing him into the seminary.

Rosalind Ross makes her feature film directing and screenwriting debut with this faith-focused saga that should appeal to its intended loyal audiences, though they may be as surprised as I was with the many “F-bombs” scattered about (hence the “R” rating). This may be a leap forward for such films in order to break out of their “specialty” category and “cross over” to more mainstream cinema audiences. Unfortunately, this film plays like a basic cable telefilm, though with more “star wattage”. Actually more like several “overcoming the odds thru suffering” telefilms as Stuart’s many hurtles almost feel like a “dogpile” as each act serves up another “helping of hardship”. Unlike last year’s JOE BELL, we do get to see Wahlberg offering inspirational lectures (the former film always cutaway) and his energy and sincerity shine through. Perhaps because of all these “story beats” much of the relationship drama is scrimped on, especially Bill’s mellowing and the very complex dynamic with Carmen. Maybe a cable or streaming miniseries could’ve “fleshed out” the character studies. Much like the recent DOG, the marketers are selling this as a sweet comedy, but if audiences can handle the truly “tough stuff” (that accident is really excruciating) they’ll enjoy learning about his remarkable fellow. As for “movie-bio” buffs, they may feel the message is often muted in the saga of FATHER STU.

2 Out of 4

FATHER STU opens in theatres on Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.