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“Father Stu” Hubris Derails a Potentially Meaningful Story (Review)

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

“I cannot take credit for the movie’s success because this is God choosing me to make the film,” he added. “He knows finally I get to utilize all the talents and gifts that have been bestowed upon me for his greater good and to serve my part in his big picture.”

This is a quote from Father Stu star Mark Wahlberg. I think it’s essential reading to fully understand the film. (Wahlberg also served as a primary producer & investor in this film.) So much of what is bad about this film originates from a place of hubris. And make no mistake about it; this movie is bad. It is unfortunate, because lying deep beneath the surface may have been a good movie with universal values that one no one will ever see.

Stuart Long (Wahlberg, The Departed, Uncharted) is a boxer, and apparently a good one. Or maybe he isn’t, the film is not really clear on that point. A short montage that shows him succeeding is contrasted by a scene at a doctor’s office where his overbearing mother, played by Jacki Weaver (The Five-Year Engagement), berates him for still being an amateur at an age when most pugilists have been professional for years. Do amateurs even get paid? Who cares, the movie sure doesn’t. Stuart’s boxing “career” ends abruptly when he decides to pack up his life and move west to become an actor. One jarring sequence sees Stuart threaten a casting agent after he tries to offer Stuart a role in exchange for sexual favors. I’m not kidding. 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Enter Carmen, played by Teresa Ruiz (Narcos: Mexico), who Stuart lays eyes upon at his part-time grocery store job and decides to enter her life by any means necessary. He follows her to a Catholic Church and thus the actual story begins. Just as Carmen provides hope for Stuart, any hope this movie ever had started with her. Ruiz does a wonderful job with the little she is given. Stuart’s aggressive pursuit of her may seem sudden (or creepy?) to the viewer, but Ruiz softens the edges, and portrays Carmen as a kind woman who charts a course from seeing Stuart as someone to help to seeing him as the man she wants to marry. 

This brings us to the third and most ridiculous chapter of this story; Stuart, still not fully committed to his newfound faith, gets drunk at a bar and gets into a motorcycle accident that puts him in a coma. Miraculously he recovers and, rather than realize the preciousness of life and marry Carmen, decides he can’t be with her because his calling is to become a priest. During his journey to be ordained as a priest, he discovers he has IBM, an autoimmune disease similar to ALS. As things begin to pile up against Stuart, his resolve and certainty in his faith, neither of which much existed thirty minutes prior in movie time, strengthen. The risk with trying to cover someone’s entire life in such short amount of time is it often becomes a scattered mess. In barely two hours, Stuart goes from paid amateur boxer, to actor & fake Catholic, to aspiring dying priest. Outside of a blind and undeveloped faith, there’s no common thread or overarching theme. We’re just supposed to care and ignore the cinematic flaws because the events supposedly happened in real life.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

I have not even mentioned Mel Gibson yet. Gibson (Lethal Weapon) plays Stuart’s absent father Bill. Stuart lost a brother at a young age and he is certain his father believes the wrong sibling was taken. Gibson mostly floats in and out of the film, acting less as a character than a plot device. He is grumpy, rude and dismissive of Stuart and anything he tries to do for most of the film, but when Stuart is diagnosed with his disease he becomes caring and attentive to Stuart’s needs. 

Put simply, this movie is a freaking mess, bound together loosely by the wonders of Catholicism. There are good moments scattered throughout the film. As Stuart begins to struggle physically from the side effects of his disease, he and another aspiring priest visit a brutal prison and try to spread the word. It is one of the few moments of the film where the nuts and bolts of Stuart’s faith are put on the table. And Wahlberg delivers an eloquent monologue in which he tries to reassure and inspire the inmates. Ultimately, however, this is a movie about and for a group of people who share a particular certainty about the world, so a scene like that ends up lost in the shuffle. 

I cannot help but think the film could have been so much more. The film’s high points are in its moments of uncertainty. There are times when Stuart expresses doubts that Carmen cannot satiate. But what mostly goes unsaid is that Carmen is at peace with what she doesn’t know, largely because she sees religion as a way to heal her community, help the less fortunate, and bring people together. There is a compelling movie with universal values in it. Instead, it serves as a clip show, using the life of a man who died too young to make a two hour advertisement for a view of religion that, apparently, sees suffering as a reward because that alone can bring you one step closer to God.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Father Stu is in theaters now.