Wednesday, June 08, 2022

"Father Stu": review

[WARNING: spoilers.]

A pet project of Mark Wahlberg's, "Father Stu" is a 2022 biopic drama about the life of Stuart Long, an actual boxer-turned-priest who contracted inclusion body myositis (IBM, funnily enough), an ALS-like degenerative disorder that slowly robs the victim of the ability to perform even basic actions. The film is directed by first-timer Rosalind Ross and stars Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, Aaron Moten, and Cody Fern.

When the film opens, we see little Stu as a kid, dancing around like Elvis and being berated by his alcoholic father (Gibson), who seems intent on crushing Stu's youthful dreams. Later in life, Stu is a boxer with a 15-2 record, but he learns that his body's immune system is not responding properly to illness and to the physical punishment that comes with being a boxer; Stu suffers from fevers and bone infections, and the doctor suggests that he find a new career. Stu decides to become an actor—over the objections of his mom (Weaver)—which means uprooting from Montana and moving to the west coast. His pursuit of acting doesn't lead to much more than a role in a mop commercial, and around this time, while working at the meat counter in a grocery store, Stu sees and falls in love with Carmen (Ruiz), a beautiful young lady who is very religious. Willing to do anything to woo Carmen, Stu begins attending her Catholic church and even gets baptized. This is problematic for Stu's parents, who lost another son, Stephen, at age six. As a result of the loss, Stu's parents, now separated, do not take kindly to religion.

Everything changes when Stu, after having sworn off drink, finds himself pounding shots in a bar. A nameless, Jesus-like man sits with him, and the two have a brief-but-tense discussion about life, purpose, and meaning. Before leaving, the man warns Stu not to go driving in his current condition. Stu ignores this advice, gets on his motorcycle, and is involved in a serious accident, during which he sees a vision of what appears to be the Blessed Virgin, who declares that Stu will not die for nothing. Stu convalesces, then he invites Carmen to meet him at the diner where she had first said she believed in Stu, and he tells his girlfriend that he wants to become a priest. Carmen doesn't take this well: she had originally wanted to preserve her virginity for marriage, but she lost it to Stu, and she had expected him to propose to her. Stu's parents also find out his intentions, and they think he's gone nuts. But Stu himself is adamant, and after applying for and being rejected by seminary, he visits the seminary's rector (Malcom McDowell) and persuades the priest to admit him.

The movie's third phase has Stu in seminary when he is struck by IBM (okay, that sentence sounds weird). This provokes a spiritual crisis as Stu struggles to understand why God would do this to him when all he wants to do, now, is be good and preach God's word. Stu's degenerative disorder has the unforeseen effect of bringing his parents back together, though, and Carmen, having found another love, is shown to be a sympathetic friend. Stu, meanwhile, preaches in churches and prisons and care facilities, adopting a folksy, easy-to-understand style that is a refreshing change from the lofty, remote diction of so many priests. Stu uses his checkered past to illustrate certain religious ideas. His faithful friend Ham (Moten) is with him through most of this, and Stu's seminary rival Jacob (Fern) finally confesses that he actually admires Stu for having the courage of his convictions. A title card tells us that Stu was a priest until his death at age 50.

What to make of all this? The movie was apparently a vanity project of Wahlberg's; he's listed as one of the film's producers. It's obviously meant to be a sincere effort. While I haven't followed Wahlberg's life story, my understanding is that he went from a "gangsta" lifestyle to something much more overtly religious; he has been a committed Catholic for years. The earnestness of Wahlberg's effort definitely comes through, and Wahlberg isn't bad in the principal role; the same can be said for Gibson, Weaver, and the rest of the cast.

That said, the movie is not without flaws. Although Wahlberg gained a significant amount of weight to play Stu as he was succumbing to his condition, he was also quite obviously using prosthetics to look fatter for the camera. The prosthetics are subtly distracting (much like the infamous fake baby used in Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper"), and I'm not sure they enhanced Wahlberg's performance. The story itself also seemed overly focused on the prelude to Stu's ministry; we don't really have the chance to see much of the ministry itself—which is a shame because the scenes in which we do see it are some of the best moments in the movie. Another annoyance was the overly snappy, writerly dialogue, which often felt like the self-consciously witty exchange between Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin in "The Departed." I saw some complaints about how, for a Christian movie, the dialogue was pretty vulgar, being laced with plenty of fuck and shit and dick and balls. The language didn't bother me any, and it's apparently fairly true-to-life given Stu's rough background. "Father Stu" occasionally focuses on Stu's sadness about the death of his little brother; I wish more had been made of this. The issue occupies the first third of the movie, but after that, it disappears. The real misfortune is that I just watched a fairly Christian movie, "Mass," and this movie—which shares some themes with "Mass"—suffers in comparison. 

I give "Father Stu" full credit for its good intentions. The visions of Jesus and Mary were a bit hokey (well, Jesus was handled pretty well, but Mary was fairly cringey); that said, the film's heart is definitely in the right place. The story will appeal to a certain demographic. It's not for everyone, and if you're not the type to watch Jesus-y films that openly aim to inspire, then you might want to skip this one. As I said above, the film has story problems and some technical awkwardness when it comes to prosthetics. Gibson, Weaver, and Ruiz bring their acting chops, and Wahlberg, who always seems to be playing himself in his various movies, comes off as... not bad. A more talented actor could have elevated the role, I think (I'm envisioning Eddie Redmayne in the flawed "The Theory of Everything"; Redmayne was the best thing about that movie). So overall, I'd call "Father Stu" a film that, ultimately, shoots for a certain goal but doesn't quite make it. Watch at your own risk.

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