‘Father Stu’ review: Mark Wahlberg’s vehicle leans on a Hail Mary
Father Stu? He’s not an ordinary priest, he’s a cool priest. A tough priest. A priest who swears (a lot), a priest with a history of alcohol and boxing. That’s the story told by the film’s poster, which features a diptych of star Mark Wahlberg, looking rough and sad in a mug shot, then blissful in the vestments of Catholic clergy. The journey between the two pictures is the dominance of “Father Stu”, the directorial debut of Rosalind Ross, who also wrote the screenplay, although there is more to the story of Catholic priest Stuart Long.
It is fascinating to watch the evolution over the last decade of what the industry calls “confessional films” especially with “Father Stu” as an example of how far they’ve come from low-budget projects aimed at niche audiences to big studio star vehicles. For Wahlberg, a devout Catholic, Long’s story of life as a former boxer and actor turned priest is ideal for trying his hand at a faith-based film. Released in time for Easter, this R-rated biopic isn’t your typical Catholic programming, but the message found in Long’s personal salvation by faith may resonate with religious audiences interested in more forward-thinking content. .
While the abundance of f-bombs is an anomaly in a faith-based film, “Father Stu” adheres to certain genre conventions: It’s based on a stranger-than-fiction true story and involves a near-death experience in which Stuart does the experience of a spiritual visit. Imagining himself cradled by the Virgin Mary after a horrific motorcycle accident, Stuart committed himself to his new Catholic faith and eventually pursued the priesthood despite his original and more lustful motivation for attending church, which was, of course, for a woman, Carmen (star of “Narcos”) Therese Ruiz).
The twist is that despite Stu’s long life of suffering, including an alcoholic father, Bill (Mel Gibson), the death of his brother in childhood, a failed amateur boxing career and problems with alcoholism, God has even more suffering in mind for him. While at the seminary, he was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a degenerative muscle disease that left him physically disabled but ultimately led to his greatest spiritual awakening.
It’s a remarkable story, but “Father Stu” is a broad, somewhat brutal film. Ross’ script lightly hits the audience with the basic rhythms and beats of Long’s life without ever letting us into the emotional experience. The characters speak to each other (and to the audience) in vague platitudes, folkloric aphorisms, biblical quotes and clever retorts. Wahlberg is in the familiar rapid-fire, rat-a-tat style he’s developed over the years, arguing and joking with everyone around him, and not even his pervasive disability can slow his motor mouth. It can be entertaining, but it’s rarely truly engaging, and the scriptwriting approach makes the characters two-dimensional and hollow. We barely know who anyone really is, other than Stuart, and much of his spiritual growth is glossed over.
Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret brings a naturalistic handheld camera, a desaturated color palette and plenty of slow motion to enhance the look and feel of the film, and the soundtrack is loaded with classic country and blues. It all adds up to a “prestigious” sheen, though the story itself is often frustratingly shallow. It is only very late in Stuart’s spiritual journey that he simply breathes and delivers the message of what he has learned, and the resonance of what we must take away is felt.
There’s a deep grace to be found in “Father Stu,” when everyone steps aside to let the message of suffering as spirituality breathe. But one can’t help but think it’s too late to have a significant impact.
Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News service.
Evaluation: R for language throughout
When: Now Playing
Or: wide version
Operating time: 2 hours, 4 minutes