New Mark Wahlberg outing Father Stu is one of many religious films released on a yearly basis that needs more than faith to leave an impact.
Mark Wahlberg, love him or hate him, has left much to be desired with the recent projects he’s chosen to star in. From Spencer Confidential to Infinite, and most recently the video game adaptation of Uncharted, he seems to be playing the same kind of characters that are either your average action hero or your typical “likable douchebag” in comedies. With Father Stu, though, it seemed like this would be a nice opportunity to break out of his regular routine from basically playing himself and actually breathe new life into a character. Wahlberg himself has been very vocal about how this film has been a passion project for him, spending millions of dollars out of his own pocket to fund the budget of Father Stu. During the press for the film, he told Insider how producers and other filmmakers didn’t understand the heart of the movie, some people thinking it was too depressing towards the end and not seeing how inspiring Stu’s story of persistence really is. So, with so much passion behind the camera by the film’s lead and constant champion, is it worth watching?
Based on a true story, Father Stu follows the life of Stuart Long (Wahlberg), a boxer-turned-priest who inspired countless people around him during his journey from self-destruction to redemption through his ever growing faith. From this synopsis, I don’t think it would be crazy to assume Wahlberg’s latest offering is yet another preachy religious flick that tries to tell us our current way of life is wrong and that we need to seek God in order to live a meaningful life. Rather than wanting to understand why anyone would dedicate their entire existence to a God, those kinds of films end up doing the complete opposite for me. Surprisingly, though, Father Stu doesn’t take that route, at least not really. Instead, it presents its titular character with a neutral point of view that allows the audience to see why somebody would turn to faith to find peace. Now, that’s not to say I believe this is a good movie, because it isn’t, but I want to give credit where credit is due. The film treats its characters as people and not necessarily nameless individuals whose only purpose is to speak out loud what is essentially religious propaganda in these movies.
The film begins with Mark Wahlberg’s character Stuart making the decision to leave his mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver, Yellowstone) and his hometown to pursue a career in Hollywood as an actor after being told his body won’t endure fighting in the ring for much longer. Perhaps it’s done on purpose or perhaps it isn’t, but there’s a lot of sudden decisions made by our protagonist that feel jarring rather than engaging. As a result, it’s kind of hard to relate to Stu for a vast majority of the first and second act. Once in L.A., Father Stu sort of becomes a stretched out montage sequence until he meets love interest Carmen (Teresa Ruiz, The Marksman). Here, the film tries to be an almost cute rom-com where these two learn to accept each others’ differences with Stu volunteering to take part in Carmen’s local church in order to convince her to be in a relationship with him. Unlike what the movie thinks is romantic, this comes across as awkward (and not in a good way) and kind of creepy at times. This also leads to a major issue with the structure of the film: for a religious story, it takes forever to actually get Stu on his journey, taking almost over half of its runtime to get there.
Once Father Stu finally embarks our character on his journey of faith, it makes for an even cheesier product to the point of being comical. You can tell Mark Wahlberg is actually trying to bring a sense of sincerity to the film, which makes sense considering how much he cares about this story, but its cliché and tacky script is not enough to get past the bland filmmaking here. First time writer and director Rosalind Ross’ work is serviceable for a directorial debut, but for a movie that tries to be more than your average religious picture by taking this inspirational true story to the screen, serviceable does an injustice to what could have been genuinely appealing from start to finish. It’s not a horrendous debut, but there is clearly a lot of growth to be made.
By the time Father Stu reaches what is supposed to be the emotional turning point of the film, where Wahlberg’s character is seen struggling with health issues, you’re simply waiting for the credits to start rolling. The movie tries to give the supporting cast character arcs, especially Mel Gibson, who plays Stu’s father, and for what is worth (again) it is not preachy, but you kind of don’t care either. Yes, it is great to see the impact Stu ends up having on everyone around him, although it is jarring to see the movie go from this comedy-like tone in the first half only to embrace a more serious tone towards the remaining half. The transition isn’t really earned and it’s instead distracting. It’s almost as if two completely different visions for this project were combined into one: the one that is trying to be witty and the one that is trying to tell an inspirational journey. Who is to be blamed for this clashing of tones? I can’t really point fingers at either Ross or Wahlberg since they seem to have developed a decent behind the scenes relationship, but I can say this film would have benefitted from maybe another draft.
If you’re looking for a feel-good movie to seek out in theaters, I can tell you right now there are better options at the box office of your local cinema. But if this is your kind of go-to film and you’re not bothered by an inconsistent tone and messy script structure, then I guess Father Stu will do the job. It’s far from being amongst the worst of its kind. It does sincerely attempt to say something meaningful without telling you how you should feel. There is a particular character played by Cody Fern (American Horror Story) who is also pursuing to become a priest alongside Stu who is having doubts that this is the direction he wants to take his life in, and rather than telling him he is wrong, the film tries to put himself in his shoes. It’s moments like these that make you wish you were watching a better version of this movie. On a personal note, I find it sort of sad that a story that should be beyond inspirational about endurance would leave such little impact by the end. I feel like Stuart Long deserved a more memorable biopic about his life than a film you’d forget about within a day, and this is coming from somebody who is neither a fan of this type of movie nor a religious person.
Father Stu is now showing in theaters in the US and Canada, and will be released in the UK, Europe and select countries on May 13, 2022.