Mark Wahlberg has played a boxer in The Fighter and an actor struggling to get by in Boogie Nights. In real life, we’ve also seen Wahlberg shift his career from rapper to movie star. In Father Stu, Wahlberg plays a boxer-turned-actor who takes on another unlikely profession: A Catholic priest. Although based on a true story, Father Stu mirrors Wahlberg’s journey as a performer and person in many respects. Wahlberg has spent several years trying to bring Stuart Long’s story to the screen. His passion for the project pays off with one of his best performances, although the film itself doesn’t stray far from a proven biopic formula.
If you happen to know any celebrities of Wahlberg’s stature, chances are you’ve pitched them a few ideas. This rarely results in a movie, but Father Stu is an exception. While grabbing a bite one evening, a priest from Wahlberg’s parish told him about Stuart Long and his biopic-friendly story. The film portrays Stu as a boozing amateur athlete who might not have a handle on his life, but he rocks a handlebar mustache. He attempts to break out in showbiz, but Stu finds himself serving up deli meat between accepting bit parts. The pinnacle of his acting career is a mop commercial that I couldn’t find on YouTube (assuming that part of the story is true).
Stu channels most of his energy into winning the affections of a local woman named Carmen (Teresa Ruiz). This entails attending her church where he picks up a few worthwhile lessons. Following a near-death motorcycle accident, Stu is convinced that he was spared to join the priesthood. Although Stu sees the light, he spreads God’s message with an unfiltered mouth and a Boston attitude. This mix of comedy and sincerity helps to distinguish Father Stu from some other faith-based movies that play more like conversion therapy. However, the film still draws comparisons to numerous other biopics.
Stuart Long was certainly a unique person, and Wahlberg affectionately captures his spirit. Director Rosalind Ross’ script hits most of the beats we’d expect from a movie like this, though: Stu having a run-in with the police, a scene where Stu is given a heartbreaking diagnosis, an authority figure telling Stu that he can’t pursue his dream, reconciliation between Stu and a parent, and inspirational ending where Stu defies all the odds. These aren’t bad tropes, and while they’re well-utilized here, we’ve seen much of this before. Well, at least I have.
Remember that this is coming from the perspective of somehow who sees A LOT of movies. More casual moviegoers likely won’t mind the formulaic moments, and Father Stu has the makings of a crowd-pleaser. Along with Wahlberg’s dedicated performance, we get solid supporting work from Jacki Weaver as his mother, Malcolm McDowell as his seminary rector, and Mel (insert awkward Passion of the Christ joke) Gibson as his estranged father. The film’s storytelling methods might not be enlightening, but its good heart makes for a worthy tribute to a man more people should know about.