Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson in ‘Father Stu’: Film Review

Jacki Weaver co-stars in a true story about a former boxer and two-bit actor who became an unlikely priest.

“Faith-based” movies have an appeal to certain audiences, but they also carry a less savory whiff to nonbelievers or skeptics. Mark Wahlberg, the star and producer of Father Stu, and the film’s writer-director, Rosalind Ross, certainly were aware of the biases that might greet any addition to the genre. They have gone out of their way to avoid treacle, and in this they have succeeded, though perhaps too well. Their movie is not sanctimonious, but neither is it quite as compelling as they might have wanted. Despite some R-rated language, the whole enterprise seems bland and perfunctory.

It may have an audience because of Wahlberg’s following and the startling true-life story it recounts, but it seems unlikely to convert those who don’t already have a vested interest in stories of spiritual redemption.

Father Stu

The Bottom Line

Viewers will not be converted.

Release date: Wednesday, April 13 (Sony Pictures)

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz

Director-screenwriter:  Rosalind Ross

Rated R,
2 hours 4 minutes

Stuart Long was a real person who took a long, circuitous journey to the priesthood. He started out as an amateur boxer, then an aspiring movie actor with a hot temper that landed him a criminal record. According to the movie, his religious conversion started with his love for a devout Hispanic woman (effectively played by Teresa Ruiz), who persuaded him to be baptized. But he took his new spiritual yearning more seriously than she expected when he suddenly announced that he had decided to become a priest.

If that sounds a bit rushed and unconvincing, it sums up the primary problem with the movie: Everything happens just a tad too quickly. Ross introduces us to Stu in the boxing ring in his home state of Montana, but an injury quickly takes him away from that passion toward a new life in Hollywood.

We are also rushed past his troubled family background. His parents (played by Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver) are estranged, and Stu feels he can’t live up to their memories of his brother, who died years earlier. So he heads to Los Angeles, fails at acting, then falls in love and discovers religion.

Given his rather checkered past, it is not surprising that the monsignor in the parish he joins (the always reliable Malcolm McDowell) rejects him as a candidate for the priesthood. But Stu persists and wins the monsignor over to his cause with minimal of strain and effort. One can appreciate that Ross wanted events to unfold swiftly rather than laboriously, but the lickety-split storytelling works against intense emotional involvement.

Admittedly, religious devotion is a notoriously difficult subject to dramatize, but Fred Zinnemann managed it in his excellent 1959 drama, The Nun’s Story, which took the time to explore the minutiae of a religious calling as well as the ambivalence that an aspirant might feel. Father Stu is more like the lite version of a conversion drama. Other elements in the story are similarly slapdash: Stu’s rapprochement with his cold, unforgiving father seems too painlessly accomplished, for example, as does the reunion of the estranged parents.

Given the failings of the script, the performances are often surprisingly effective. Wahlberg captures Stu’s charm without overselling it. Ruiz is engaging, and although Australian actress Weaver isn’t always convincing as a Montana mom, she has a few forceful scenes. Gibson actually gives one of the strongest performances of his career. He doesn’t soften the character, and even when Bill begins to warm toward Stu, Gibson doesn’t overplay the sentiment.

There are, unfortunately, a couple of moments when the actors’ offscreen antics add an uncomfortable note to the proceedings. A scene in which Stu bashes a gay producer who comes on to him throws us out of the movie to remind us of Wahlberg’s violent past. (An early scene with the young Stu dancing in his underwear evokes another part of Wahlberg’s history.) And Gibson’s line that Stu’s decision to join the church is “like Hitler asking to join the ADL” also stirs disturbing memories of the co-star’s behavior.

Supporting performances by McDowell, Aaron Moten, Cody Fern and others add texture. Locations are strikingly captured by cinematographer Jacques Jouffret. The primarily country music score is a bit on the nose but works effectively enough. Although this true story (even if embellished a bit by the filmmakers) inevitably builds some emotion, it ends up feeling more banal than spiritually exalting.

Full credits

Production company: Municipal Pictures

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, Malcolm McDowell, Aaron Moten, Cody Fern

Director-screenwriter: Rosalind Ross

Producers: Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Jordon Foss

Executive producers: Miky Lee, Colleen Camp, Rosalind Ross, Patrick Peach, Tony Grazia

Director of photography: Jacques Jouffret

Production designer: David Meyer

Costume designer: Lisa Norcia

Editor: Jeffrey M. Werner

Music: Dickon Hinchliffe

Rated R, 2 hours 4 minutes