Father Stu

Movie

A skeptical amateur wrestler finds religion in Rosalind Ross’s uninspiring biopic.

In October 2017, Mark Wahlberg told the Chicagoan cardinal Blase Cupich that he hoped God would forgive him for making “poor choices” like Boogie Nights, the single greatest non-hamburger enterprise with which he’s ever been involved. Eleven months later, he took to Instagram and posted a rundown of his baffling daily routine, which begins at 2:30 in the morning and allots thirty minutes of ‘prayer time’ to be wrapped up by 3:15.

Aside from illustrating that the image of a sand-and-gravel Massachusetts townie belies a deeply strange, Hollywood-brained man, these missives from the mind of the former Funky Bunch affiliate and would-be 9/11-stopper place his personal narrative on the path to self-improvement. He’s sinned — though his transgressions are closer to the PCP-fueled-hate-crime variety than he cares to mention — and he’s ready to be redeemed by the cleansing love of the Lord.

Wahlberg found a kindred soul in the late Stuart Long, whose eventful life story the actor heard while out at a dinner with two priests. What sounds like the set-up to a joke now has its punchline in the form of Father Stu, a competent yet unconvincing biopic that supplies its producer/star with an avatar putting his own arc of weird salvation back in the blue-collar alpha terms he prefers onscreen.

A lot of stuff happened to Stu, and the compulsion to cover it all leaves the plot plodding and misshapen, informed more by the structure of an e-mail forward than a screenplay. The unaccountably long first act takes us through several pivots, as Stu ditches his small-time wrestling gig, moves to Los Angeles to pursue movie stardom, finds stopgap employment behind a butcher counter, and converts to Roman Catholicism so he can bang the tradition-oriented Mexican beauty (Teresa Ruiz) he’s resolved to win over on first sight.

That’s a whole lot of prologue just to establish point A for this hard-livin’ guy as salty language, DUI charges, and estrangement from his father (Mel Gibson, also working the bastard-makes-good angle to decidedly less credible results). He only starts moving toward point B after a brush with death in a motorcycle accident, at which point he decides he’s pinned down his purpose at last and joins the seminary. Unfortunately for him, he soon learns that a rapid degenerative muscle condition will cut his life short, and unfortunately for us, this illness manifests in a gouty-necked 30-pound weight gain that smothers Wahlberg’s performance of coarse likability.

While writer-director Rosalind “Mrs. Mel Gibson” Ross avoids the culture-war dog-whistling (and overt siren-blaring) of the Pureflix abominations that have overtaken the faith-based film genre, she still shares their tendency for inspirational pap. The R rating assures that this will be a more grounded depiction of Christian devotion than most, and at times, Wahlberg even sells the conviction of someone surrendering to a force higher than themselves. But these earnest emotions draw out the phoniness from the hokier moments Ross can’t resist; as sure as Jesus rising after three days, the film must give its take on the old ‘footprints in the sand’ bit.

While Stu’s journey from headstrong to humbled demonstrates that there’s no single correct way to worship, he’s really trading one cliché (the wayward non-believer) for another (cool youth pastor). During the scene in which his no-bullshit sermonizing gets through to a group of hardened prison inmates, it’s plain to see that an uncouth manner embracing imperfection resonates with reg’lar folks more than perfectly squeaky-clean godliness. And yet the unfocused script from outclassed first-timer Ross never really follows through on what should be its foundational idea, led astray by underdone subplots and vague relationships between its characters.

All that’s real in here, from the facts of its subject’s biography to Wahlberg’s connection with it, does little to make any of it feel true. Just as a prayer turns into mere words without discipline behind it, Stu’s long and winding road to heaven becomes a list of plot points in its shapeless indirection. Though he eventually found his way, the route there is too circuitous, too well-trod, and too needlessly lengthy to be worth following.

Published 10 May 2022

Tags: Mark Wahlberg

Anticipation.

Stu’s not your father’s Father.

Enjoyment.

Much here to repent for.

In Retrospect.

Holy hokum.

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