As a former bad boy myself who found my way into ministry while also having significant disabilities, I would seem to be the perfect audience for Mark Wahlberg's latest film Father Stu, a film that has Wahlberg playing real-life former amateur boxer turned Catholic priest Stuart Long.
However, something awful seems to have happened on the way to Father Stu's inspirational redemption story and instead of a feel-good drama wrapped around faith and redemption we end up with a film that never finds its rhythm, massively overstays its welcome, and features Wahlberg in a role for which he is, quite simply, wildly miscast.
Father Stu isn't an awful film, though the experience of watching it was awful. In hindsight, I can find things to appreciate about Father Stu though this can't make up for the fact that I quite literally hated the film from beginning to end.
First off, whomever came up for the marketing campaign for Father Stu should be unemployed. It's an abysmal misrepresentation of the film, promising lightness and entertainment while the film leans into its R-rating, and it is rated R folks, with an abundance of F-bombs throughout the film that seem primarily placed there to give the film a sense of being "real."
I'm not necessarily bothered by F-bombs, but in this case they dominated the cinematic landscape over a floundering Wahlberg and a story that never grabs the heart like it should have.
There's no surprise that Wahlberg was attracted to the real-life Father Stu's story. Wahlberg is well-known as a devout Catholic with a questionable background. And no, I'm not talking about the Funky Bunch.
While Wahlberg has shown at times that he can actually act, at least with a director like Scorsese at the helm, in the hands of first-time writer/director Rosalind Ross, who also happens to be co-star Mel Gibson's real-life partner, Wahlberg isn't nearly skilled enough to find the nuances needed for this story to come to life and I have no qualms in saying that some of the film's most touching moments actually made me laugh out loud.
Other than his well-known putting on of weight to play later life Father Stu, Wahlberg is well out of his element here with a vulnerability that's completely missing and a sense of faith conversion that never feels authentic. Father Stu is way overly long, though it's hard to pinpoint what could come out since theres' very little in the way of a cohesive rhythm throughout.
Wahlberg, perhaps unsurprisingly, is most effective in Father Stu's early pre-conversion boxing days though it becomes apparent quickly that his body isn't made to endure the intensity of boxing. Eventually forced off that path, he detours to Hollywood in search of fame despite the opposition of his divorced parents (Jacki Weaver and Mel Gibson). While working in a meat department, a chance encounter with an out of his league beauty (Teresa Ruiz) leads him into a church pew hoping to draw the Catholic Sunday school teacher's attention.
Before long, and quite unconvincingly, he takes a labyrinthian detour toward God and decides that's where he's been called all along.
Of course, anyone familiar with the real-life story that amidst his journey toward priesthood Father Stu was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that acts similarly to ALS (the real-life Father Stu was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis).
It's actually rather astounding that a film as promising as Father Stu simply doesn't work. However, being a man of faith doesn't necessarily mean you can easily portray one and it's clear early on that Wahlberg is simply in over his head here. Between Ross's hokey script and awkward dialogue and Wahlberg's inability to bring life to it, Father Stu never convinces and never fully engages.
I wanted desperately to love this film, but at every turn I found myself disappointed.
Wahlberg is the weak link here and made weaker by the fact that he's surrounded by a solid ensemble cast. Gibson, despite being saddled with dialogue that constantly reminds you that this is Mel Gibson (Seriously, a Nazi rant?), reminds us that he's a tremendous actor given the right material. Jacki Weaver impresses as always while Malcolm McDowell shows up for a bit and shines as a rector. Teresa Ruiz is an absolute delight even though she has zilch in the way of chemistry with Wahlberg.
Father Stu isn't an awful film and there are going to be people who click with it. It's simply an awkward film that never finds a rhythm and is desperately in need of stronger editing, stronger dialogue, and a more engaging lead.
Oh, and maybe a few less F-bombs.
Watching Father Stu serves up more perspiration than inspiration. It's a film founded upon a wonderful story of redemption and perseverance, yet too much of Father Stu is devoted to toxic masculinity and a faux sense of conversion and redemption.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic