Compared to most of the faith-based schlock that gets pumped out with the express purpose of being post-church viewing for the whole family, Father Stu might as well be Citizen Kane. It’s not that the film is good (it’s not), but that there’s enough money behind it that it looks like a real movie, has real movie stars that aren’t even Greg Kinnear, and tells a complete story. That’s about as much praise as I can give it.
The film is clearly a passion project for its star Mark Wahlberg, who financed it himself. Wahlberg plays real-life priest Stuart Long, an amateur boxer who moves to Los Angeles from Montana to be an actor and becomes so horny for a stranger that he converts to Catholicism and eventually becomes a priest. At least, that’s how the movie tells it.
Once in L.A., Stuart is working at a meat counter at a grocery store when he sees Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) looking at a display of tuna cans. He tries unsuccessfully to flirt with her, and when he attempts to run out of the store to chase her, his boss stops him from stalking her. “They used to call it romance,” Stuart says. Luckily for him, she left a flier advertising a Catholic Mass, and that’s where Stuart finds her.
Stuart’s desire to bed Carmen draws him further into the church. She won’t sleep with someone she’s not married to, and she won’t even date someone who isn’t Catholic, so he eventually gets baptized. Wahlberg is adept at playing guys who are wholly committed to getting what they want, and this is no different.
Despite telling Carmen’s father that he doesn’t drink, Stuart finds himself at a bar having a philosophical conversation with a long-haired stranger. Afterwards, he drunkenly rides his motorcycle and gets into a horrific accident. First he’s hit by a car and thrown off his bike, then another car runs him over. While passed out, the Virgin Mary comes to him and guides him back to consciousness. This is not what you would call a subtle film.
After waking up from a coma, Stuart takes Carmen to a diner where she thinks he is going to propose to her. Instead he tells her that she is going to become a priest. At this point Carmen is basically out of the movie, and it becomes entirely about Stuart’s struggle to convince the church that he is worthy of becoming a man of the cloth. His main adversary is the monsignor of the local parish, played like the rent is due by Malcolm McDowell.
Several of Wahlberg’s best roles have found him being the guy just asking for a chance. It’s a mode he knows how to play well, and he is at his best in the movie when Stuart has to harness all of his natural charm to compensate for a lack of other skills. Wahlberg and McDowell share some of the movie’s more compelling scenes, mostly because they are the only ones with any real tension between two characters.
Obviously, Stuart is eventually admitted into seminary. Finally he’s achieved his major goal and will now be a rough and tumble priest capable of meeting people on their level. Just kidding. He collapses while playing basketball and is diagnosed with a rare, incurable degenerative muscle disease.
For the rest of the film Wahlberg’s body, with the help of prosthetics and real-life weight gain, becomes bigger and more unusable. The church is concerned that he won’t be able to perform the sacraments, so he cannot be ordained. Stuart, now fully a man of faith, is tested once again by the big man upstairs. Can he overcome this deep suffering through his relationship to God? Well, you’ll just have to see the movie to find out (he does).
Circling the periphery of this story are Stuart’s mother (Jacki Weaver) and his estranged father (Mel Gibson). Neither of them has much of anything to do, with Weaver mostly asking, “What are you doing,” concernedly and Gibson mostly asking, “What are you doing” angrily. In a movie less shoddily written, this would be a meaty role for Gibson. He's playing a gruff alcoholic who is inspired to become a better man through his son’s faith, and he should be able to knock it out of the park in his sleep. Yet first-time writer-director Rosalind Ross’s screenplay occasionally forgets about him, bringing him back in only when it needs someone to tell Stuart he’s wasting his time and being a “retard.” You’d think she’d write Gibson a better part, considering the fact that she is his longtime girlfriend.
Father Stu seems to be unclear in what it wants to be. It is definitely intended as a showcase for Wahlberg, but the script is too thin to pack any real punch. It is probably intended as a movie for Catholic families to see en masse — part of the film’s marketing push included an open letter from Wahlberg posted outside of Catholic churches — but it is rated R for all of its crass language. Who is the audience for this movie? The only answer I can think of is single Catholic adults. I hope they enjoy it.
Wahlberg has said that Father Stu represents “a new chapter for him.” He wants to make more movies that “help people.” “Hopefully this movie will open a door for not only myself but for lots of other people in Hollywood to make more meaningful content,” he told Entertainment Tonight. Whatever door is being opened by Father Stu should be closed quickly, lest it give way to more religion-forward movie stars (ahem, Chris Pratt) joining Walhberg in the pews.