“Father Stu” is a biopic based on the tumultuous life of Stuart Long, a man who went from a semi-successful heavyweight boxer, to a mostly-failed actor, to a beloved yet blunt Catholic Priest. Mark Wahlberg originally announced this project back in 2016, but it has had a long journey from concept to screen, and only exists since Wahlberg financed it himself. His passion for the story is clearly seen and the film succeeds in some unexpected ways but falters in some of the areas we’d expected it to focus on.
After multiple jaw bone injuries end his career as a boxer, Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) is looking for a new purpose in life. Being an impulsive man, Stu quickly concludes he has a face for acting and leaves Montana for LA. Without much of a plan, he finds his way into a few bit roles and commercials, filling his free time behind the meat counter of a local grocery store. Stu believed that a public-facing job was a great way to meet other actors and casting directors. He wasn’t able to meet who he was looking for, but a beautiful young woman, Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) did catch his eye. Stu suddenly has a new obsession, winning her heart. Carmen is a very devout Catholic and will only date someone who shares her faith. This is but a mild speedbump to the Atheist-raised Stu. He immediately beings attending a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults class to prepare for his baptism. Things are starting to look up for Stu. He has a better handle on his short temper, he has won the love of a beautiful woman, and Religion has given him a new purpose in life. But then a terrible, near-fatal accident changes everything.
This accident and Stu’s recovery period reunite his mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) and bitter, estranged father, Bill (Mel Gibson). They separated years ago after their youngest son died at 5 years of age. They handled their trauma differently, Kathleen leaning into supporting Stu, and Bill wallowing in his anger and running away from the family. But now, they shared the goal of helping their remaining son. Most concerning to them is during Stu’s near-death experience, he claims to have seen the Virgin Mary and is now convinced he needs to dedicate his life to God and become a priest. His choice is challenged at every turn. Carmen doesn’t want to lose the man she loves to a life of celibacy. Bill and Kathleen worry about his mental health. Monsignor Kelly (Malcolm McDowell), head of the papal classes, thinks this impulsive choice will make a mockery of the Church. Stu overcomes all of their concerns and makes his choice a reality through sheer stubbornness. But the universe has one more challenge for him, one that would make a lesser man question God’s plan.
As a biopic, the movie works quite well. It is packed with interesting characters and excellent performances. Wahlberg chews the scenery of every shot, throwing himself into this character that he truly admires in real life. Gibson is also perfectly cast as his emotionally toxic and fiercely blunt father. The script and direction are also especially well done considering this is Rosalind Ross‘s first feature film. The movie is surprisingly funny, a benefit of its unabashedly R-rated dialog. Stuart was a colorful speaker in real life and to depict him as any less than that would be an insult to who the man really was. Unfortunately, for a film that is intended to be “inspirational”, it’s a bit lacking in that area. Yes, Stu overcame many hardships in his life. He credits God, but based on what we’re shown, it could be closer to unadulterated stubbornness coupled with a traumatic brain injury. We’re also told that Stu changed the lives of everyone he came in contact with. I have no doubt that he inspired many others based on accounts I’ve read online and our interview with Mark Wahlberg, but the movie doesn’t offer much evidence of that outside the shot of a long line of people waiting outside his nursing home shortly before his death. Wahlberg has said the original edit was 4 hours long and that there were a lot of great scenes that had to be cut. It’s possible that the most inspirational scenes were left behind on the cutting room floor. Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to see some of these scenes in future bonus features, but it’s a shame that this 2-hour film focuses on his own self-improvement and skips over the parts where he helps others.