It’s understandable to see why the life of Stuart Long — a rough-and-tumble boxer turned Roman Catholic priest — got Mark Wahlberg’s attention and the spirit moved him to funnel “millions and millions” of dollars into a feature film about him. It’s even more understandable why the material would attract someone like Mel Gibson. It’s a story that undoubtedly speaks to two men who know all too well what it’s like to be devout in their faith with skeletons that have emerged from their closets and into the public sphere.
However, what doesn’t make a whole lot of sense is entrusting the material in Rosalind Ross, Gibson’s longtime girlfriend. A former equestrian vaulter, Ross’ last writing credit was on a short film in 2014, and her IMDb page is small enough that an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s talk show is at the forefront.
Father Stu tells the story of Stu Long, who grew up with an abusive father in Bill (Gibson) and a well-intentioned but powerless mom in Kathleen (Jacki Weaver). The glimpses of Stu’s childhood we get boil down to him impersonating Elvis Presley and Bill mocking his son’s interests. Cut to Stu, now played by Wahlberg, who has taken on the career of a boxer, and has more bruises and fractures than he does trophies, let alone money. At the age when most professional boxers retire, he still thinks he can make it big.
Then another drunk and disorderly arrest gets him thinking (ostensibly overnight) that he can drop everything and move to Hollywood to become a movie star. While slumming at a grocery store, he meets Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a devout Catholic woman. In order to woo her, he follows her to church and pretends (albeit not convincingly) to be a religious man himself. Eventually, a near-death experience on a motorcycle reveals itself to be a call to priesthood for the broken down bloke. He begs a local monsignor (Malcolm McDowell) for an opportunity in the seminary, but Stu’s condescending and cocksure personality starkly contrast the reticently proper ways of the Catholic Church. Stu does the only thing he knows how to do. Fight on.
Let’s count the blessings of Father Stu first: the soundtrack is terrific (Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton, and other golden oldies are heard), Teresa Ruiz sings with a beautiful Loretta-twang, there are some seriously funny lines of dialog, and Wahlberg and Gibson (individually good) play a believable father/son duo.
But where Father Stu falters is how it oversimplifies its story. This is one of those biopics with no real sense of time nor place. Consider the fact that Gibson’s Bill looks the same age when Stu is a child as he does when Stu is stricken with an incurable illness. Upon meeting Carmen — and elbowing and stalking his way into her life in a way that was deemed romantic at one point in time — Stu can barely compose himself long enough for a church lunch. Two minutes and two brief scenes later, he’s speaking fluent Spanish and wowing her Hispanic, traditionalist parents.
Another example comes when Stu is slapped with another DUI and needs to make an audition in a haste. At this point in time, it’s been established that his relationship with his father is estranged and the two haven’t spoken in years. It makes little sense that, without options, Stu miraculously finds the indistinguishable construction site on which his father works, knows the exact vehicle he drives, and then makes an attempt to hotwire it. The following scene has Stu getting where he needs to go on a motorcycle, acquired by means only God knows.
Father Stu is by definition a faith-based film. It’s refreshingly unlike the swath of persecution porn or saccharine Sunday School schlock churned out by Pure Flix at least two times a year. It’s a hard-R movie with vulgar characters who can’t go a sentence without cursing. A credit to Ross for not sugarcoating the dialog. There are some legitimately hilarious moments here, and most of them are a credit to Wahlberg so naturally assuming the role.
But this is a movie brought down significantly due to it being overdirected and underwritten. Ross favors close-ups to the point of fatigue early into the two-hour film, and the inelegant framing gives the impression of an inexperienced director overcompensating for her yet unrealized style.
Father Stu has all the ingredients for a successful biopic. The fact is that it needed a veteran director to drive it home. Not a figurehead making a belated debut with her boyfriend in a supporting role.
NOTE: Father Stu is now playing exclusively in movie theaters.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, and Malcolm McDowell. Directed by: Rosalind Ross.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!