Mark Whalberg’s charm offensive is not enough to win over audiences of Father Stu. The second installment in the Wahlberg absolution filmography (the first being Joe Bell) rarely deeply explores Stuart Long’s journey on his path to sanctitude.
This review of the new film Father Stu does not contain spoilers.
Mark Wahlberg is very good in his latest film. The charismatic actor seems to be specializing in redemptive, salt-of-the-earth characters of late. Father Stu appears to be the second movie of the Wahlberg absolution trilogy, the first being the underrated Joe Bell. It’s a film that can be effective at times and even moving, one that writer and director Rosalind Ross isn’t afraid to show the warts and all approach to. I’m not sure what the third one could be, but you know one will be coming in the next few years. We wish this second film had forgone such a rose-colored lens.
Father Stu was reportedly a passion project of Wahlberg and costar Mel Gibson, two figures who can relate to finding religion to straighten out their controversy-filled pasts. Based on a true story where Stuart Long (Wahlberg), an amateur boxer who retired because of a career-ending injury, traveled to Hollywood to become rich and famous. He
stalks and charms a woman, Carmen (Narcos: Mexico’s Teresa Ruiz), whom he falls for at his supermarket gig. He begins to, reluctantly, reconnect with his father (Gibson), who left him and his mother, Kathy (Jackie Weaver), after Stu’s brother passed away when he was a child. After landing a prime gig as a man who discovers the world’s most extraordinary mop in a national daytime commercial, he finds his calling to become a catholic priest after a DUI.
This is Ross’s directorial feature film debut; it’s not part of the “faith-based’ genre, as so many are painting this as. For one, it has a hard R-rating for a reason. For that matter, the tag line of “amazing true story” of boxing gloves to the clerical collar is not that far fetched. With religion taking a back seat to society for a short period, many use it to help empower themselves to change their lives around in the first place. The film also has a director of photography, Jacques Jouffret (Joe Bell), who more than elevates the film over the standard spiritual fare.
The one problem with Father Stu is Ross fouls off a couple of meatballs. This error could have given the film some needed emotional heft. Many criticize Wahlberg as being miscast, but besides one scene where he gets to show some dynamic range, Ross’s scripts restrict him from doing anything but a charm offensive. He is good here and the main reason the film achieves any success.
There is also the issue of Gibson’s story arc and redemption. And even Weaver’s Kathy. They fail to have Stu or Bill address his absentee father. Ross also avoids their loss which weighs on the family heavily. This would have led to an extraordinary moment of closure and forgiveness. Gibson seems to be there only as window dressing. A gifted actor, his role comes across as filler. The most interesting part of the film is the relationship arc between Ruiz and Wahlberg. However, it is moved to the side for the storylines above that never develop.
I will say that the scene towards the end of the film, involving a ceremony in Father Stu’s hometown, is surprisingly moving. However, it is still underplayed. The story never reaches an adequate level of, let’s say, cohesive intervention it sets out to accomplish. In other words, while Stuart Long may have achieved his sanctitude despite the odds, we rarely get to deeply examine what brought Father Stu down the path of his journey in any meaningful way.
For a movie, you need more than faith.
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