Stuart Long, a boxer-turned-actor who spent most of his days as a freewheeling degenerate, finds his purpose as an ordained priest in Father Stu. It’s easy to see why Executive Producer and star Mark Wahlberg viewed Long as a compelling subject – with Long’s free-spirited soul undergoing a transformational journey as each trial and tribulation brings him closer to faith.
For the most part, religious films operate solely by preaching to their indoctrinated choir rather than observing a life motivated by undying faith. Pinnacle Peak Pictures and Ben Shapiro’s newly-formed Daily Wire serve up these cynical offerings yearly, often producing films that communicate their messaging with a lack of artistry and entertainment value (God may not be dead, but I sure am glad the God’s Not Dead franchise is).
Still, the subgenre isn’t entirely hopeless. Renowned auteur Martin Scorsese skillfully entrenches viewers into the perils and self-serving egoism of missionary work in his 2016 masterwork, Silence. Even a few recent faith-centric offerings, like Beckman and The Unholy, utilized their religious canvases by thoughtfully illustrating their subjects’ moral dilemmas.
With Father Stu, Wahlberg marks a potential career-changing pivot to religious fare for the star actor. Instead of analyzing Long’s odyssey with insight, Wahlberg and company create a cookie-cutter and oddly mean-spirited descent into biopic formula.
Religious proverbs and good-faith speeches are a dime a dozen in Father Stu, but the entire endeavor feels rather listless. In her first big-screen project, writer/director Rosalind Ross, the wife of co-star Mel Gibson, falls into the typical biopic trap of capturing a subject’s entire livelihood in a truncated two-hour experience. Her approach creates a breathless, paper-thin narrative, an overstretched arc that finds Long traversing from one significant moment to another without developing a genuine understanding of his persona.
Ross’ craft is similarly generic. The director and her editing team lean on folksy score notes and obvious song cues to carry much of the emotional heavy lifting, showcasing a vision crafted in the mold of a generic Hallmark biopic. Aside from some of her and Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret’s intimate framing choices, most of Father Stu operates on autopilot.
Ross especially struggles with the film’s blending of tone. Long’s ever-present levity amidst challenging circumstances is noteworthy, although the writer/director does not find cohesive or humorous ways to express his sensibility. Several jokes are conjured in shockingly poor taste, highlighting the film’s conservative worldview in downright uncomfortable ways. Scenes mocking a transgender woman, laughing at frequent uses of the r-word, and painting gay Hollywood executives as sexual predators make for bizarre inclusions in a supposedly “feel good” affair.
Father Stu may represent a passion project for Wahlberg, but the celebrity performer struggles in igniting much interest. The actor’s macho-man bravado is everpresent as Stewart Long, with the character’s bad-boy past mirroring some of Wahlberg’s own mishaps as he emerged towards superstardom. However, Wahlberg approaches Long as nothing more than a generic degenerate-turned-good. His inconsistent accent and overworked delivery can’t convey the nuances behind Long’s evolution, creating a portrait of blind hero-worship that offers nothing but praise for the character and his complicated past.
Father Stu fumbles its viable true story at nearly every turn. If Mark Wahlberg wants to make a career out of faith films, I hope he learns to evolve his craft from here.
Father Stu is now playing in theaters.
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