CAST: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, Niko Nicotera, Chiquita Fuller, Cody Fern, Malcolm McDowell
RUNNING TIME: 124 mins
BASICALLY…: A down-on-his-luck former boxer (Wahlberg) is inspired to become a Catholic priest…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Now that Will Smith finally has his Oscar (albeit, in the most awkward way possible), the search is on for the next big Hollywood A-lister who deserves their formidable shot at awards glory. Throwing his hat into the ring is Mark Wahlberg, who with the inspiring true story of Father Stu rigidly commits to a performance that is scientifically designed to, at the very least, worm its way into end-of-year conversations – however, it’s doubtful he’ll get very far beyond that, because despite its noble intentions and passionate acting, the film itself just isn’t very good.
Wahlberg, who also produces the movie with writer-director Rosalind Ross at the helm, stars as Stuart Long, an amateur boxer from Montana who, after a career-ending injury, decides to pursue an acting career in California. There, whilst working as a butcher, he meets and falls for Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a devoted Catholic who runs the Sunday school service at a local church; initially attending just to please his potential love interest, Stu gradually becomes more and more drawn to Catholicism, and eventually decides that his calling in life is to become a priest, despite everyone in his life – from Carmen, to his doubtful parents Bill (Mel Gibson) and Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) – telling him not to take that path. Undeterred, and newly committed to his faith, Stu applies anyway, only for him to later be diagnosed with a life-changing illness that puts his own future into jeopardy.
Considerably more high-profile than many of the other faith-based movies that are regularly churned out across the United States (where a fringe industry of religious cinema not only exists, but thrives in certain parts of the country), and certainly a lot more vulgar with its language, Father Stu is a film that certainly has a strong moral centre, along with good values and a moving story, while retaining its rougher edge without sacrificing it for the sake of a more sensitive audience. It’s important to state this, because my criticisms of this movie have nothing to do with the fact that it’s a film about religion; like most things in life, I am of the belief that anyone and everyone has the right to do or believe whatever they feel is right for them, so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else in any way. Although I am personally not a religious person, I do have great respect for the Christian and Catholic communities (except those fringe types who sinisterly manipulate words of peace to further extremist, hateful agendas in society), and for people like the real Stuart Long who, in the short time he had on this Earth, went forward with their beliefs in kindness for their kin, and did not seek to divide but unite during troubled times.
That being said, the movie’s flaws lie in its rabid lack of focus. As a first-time director (with only a short film and an episode of the short-lived TV series Matador to her name as a writer), Rosalind Ross struggles to condense the story into a coherent structure, one that favours a fragmented approach that simultaneously gives us too much but also not enough. There will be long scenes of dialogue between characters, but really only a fraction of it is meaningful, and before you know it the film has moved on to what’s next. It’s difficult to form a true connection with the on-screen characters because of that, since the story is being told in such a flabby manner to pad itself out with stretched-out scenes that give it the appearance of being deeper than it actually is. On top of that, the pacing is odd, stopping and starting at awkward convenience, with editing that often makes it seem as though the movie is about to cut to an advert break in the middle of certain scenes. At just over two hours long, the movie does outstay its welcome, especially when it keeps going for another twenty or so minutes after the most logical ending point, only to then finally conclude on the most abrupt note.
The only thing carrying most of the movie is the dedicated performance that Mark Wahlberg gives here, which is the most energetic and committed he has been in some of his recent projects (compared to his far less interested turns in Infinite and Uncharted, Wahlberg might as well be handed the Oscar right now). He does great at portraying this character’s optimism and flawed nature throughout the film’s first half, like a more religious version of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, and while his performance during the more physically challenging second half feels more self-aware than it does truly authentic, it’s impressive to see the actor really try and push himself for the part, even gaining thirty pounds in weight just to portray him later in life. Also, I’m just going to say it: Mel Gibson is also really good here. Say whatever you want about him as a person, but the guy still has a strong screen presence, and here he’s given some decently vulgar lines to play around with to counteract Wahlberg’s more genial approach, which does make for a few good back-and-forths between the actors, like it’s an alternate-universe version of their father and son characters from Daddy’s Home 2.
If the script and direction itself were as firmly committed as its central performance, Father Stu genuinely might have had a chance at reaching out beyond its built-in religious audience. Like I said, it has good values, contains a strong message about love and acceptance, and treats its central figure with a clear amount of respect; unfortunately, it lacks the dramatic chops to really make much of a difference, outside of telling the world that a fascinating person like Stuart Long existed, and did the very best he could under such exceptional circumstances. If that was the pure goal of producer Wahlberg from the start, then I’m glad that he succeeded – if only the movie he birthed into existence was better at maintaining its own course, then perhaps Wahlberg might have had a real chance of striking gold (and, hopefully, not striking anything or anyone else) at next year’s ceremony.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Father Stu is carried by a fiercely committed central performance by star/producer Mark Wahlberg, who does well to chart real-life priest Stuart Long’s optimistic turn to faith, but a lack of focus and infrequent pacing on the part of writer-director Rosalind Ross, who before this has very little experience on feature filmmaking, ultimately makes this noble and well-intentioned drama a less coherent and dramatically unengaging one.