Often, films and television suffer from unfair labels. The mere presence of an actor or actress may shift the conversation toward a movie, often prejudicing the audience against the messages of a film. In the case of Sony Pictures’ new release, Father Stu, many will turn away at the mere presence of Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson. The two men have become lightning rods for controversy for their past problematic behavior. In some cases, each has used this negative public perception as the scapegoat for a lack of success. However, Father Stu‘s problems run much deeper than the personal politics of these men. The R-rated, faith-based drama will undoubtedly have an audience that will support the film. Yet the performances and lack of introspection about the story undermine a genuinely inspirational story of faith in the face of tragedy.
Written and directed by Rosalind Ross, Father Stu follows the true story of Stuart Long (Wahlberg). After a career as a boxer, Long moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment. After establishing a life and beginning a relationship, he suffered a near-death experience while riding his motorcycle. He turns to religion during his time in recovery, eventually choosing to become a member of the clergy. However, his medical history reveals a surprise diagnosis that will change his life forever.
The story of Stuart Long feels essential, even as someone that does not consider themselves particularly religious. Yet the spirituality and inspiration that Long provides as a subject of the film are undermined by Father Stu‘s plethora of issues. Ross shows promise as a visual storyteller, often playing with images of faith and Catholicism. However, she loses her grip on the film’s tone, which begins to overwhelm the narrative on-screen.
Culprit A for this tonal imbalance comes from Wahlberg’s casting. The story of Father Stu resonated with Wahlberg, who is well known to have pursued this project for the last decade. He not only stars in the film but produces the film. Yet somewhere in the process, someone should have told Wahlberg a harsh truth: he is miscast as Long.
On the surface, a blue-collar catholic boy turned fighter, who pursued a career in acting, makes sense for Wahlberg. However, the Oscar-nominated actor does not have the instincts needed to bring realism to this role as a performer. Wahlberg is most at home when showing the physicality of Stu, both as a boxer and during sequences that showcase his physique. These movie-star moments mostly work until he turns Stu into a motormouth. Wahlberg rarely breaks his usual speaking cadence and seemingly stopped developing the character when he saw vulgar dialogue. He leaves his charisma at the door, and instead of turning Stu into a folksy, loveable scoundrel, he turns him into a creepy bully. In Wahlberg’s hands, the character loses its depth, making the foul-mouthed nature of Stu his only quality of note.
The overuse of profanity to get a cheap laugh does not stop with Wahlberg. Both Gibson and Jacki Weaver punctuate jokes with their “non-PC” language, but the trick gets old fast. Each brings raw emotion to the screen, but a joke continually undercuts these moments that should build to a tear-jerking emotional climax. This occurs so often in the film’s first half that the story’s rhythm is well-established before the final act. When the most tragic material comes around, we are already used to the laugh lines that undercut the drama. This continues throughout the remainder of the story, never allowing the film to go more than a few minutes without trying to deliver a cruel joke to draw a laugh.
Weaver delivers one of the few performances that fit the film. However, her Silver Linings Playbook and Animal Kingdom performances provided far more nuanced depictions of motherhood. Emerging talents Aaron Moten and Cody Fern bring genuine gravitas to their scenes. However, they play in a key that feels out of place due to the flippant tone of the film. The real surprise, Teresa Ruiz, delivers a nuanced portrayal of a woman stuck between love and faith. Wahlberg struggles to sell their chemistry, but Ruiz does the best she can to salvage the love story. However, Ross does not seem interested in examining the nuances in this storyline and ultimately abandons the intriguing plot.
Sadly, Father Stu comes off as a dud in the end. Whether Ross could not execute her vision due to oversight from her stars, or she believed this version of Father Stu would reach the largest audience possible, the faith-based film misfires at every turn. The story of Father Stuart Long should inspire you to put more good into the world. Instead, this tainted version is more concerned with hitting a laugh line than bringing any degree of nuance. This is a true shame.