I don’t care what all the other critics said when Father Stu was first released in April. It’s not that bad.
Now, of course, I should be upfront and mention that I come from a Catholic background. My father’s side of the family is Irish. My mother’s side is Italian/Spanish. Am I saying that you have to have been raised Catholic to appreciate Father Stu? Not at all. But it does help.
And when I say that Father Stu is not that bad, what I mean is that’s actually pretty good.
Based on a true story, Father Stu stars Mark Wahlberg as Stuart Long. When the movie opens, Stu is in a boxing ring, beating up his opponents while taking a lot of punishment himself. From that opening scene, we learn a few things about Stu. He’s a fighter. He’s determined. He’s willing to take a beating. And he really doesn’t know when to quit. We then meet his no-nonsense mother, Kathleen (Jacki Weaver), and his father, Bill (Mel Gibson). Bill is an alcoholic truck driver, the type who shouts at other drivers and who gets into an argument with a random child about who is the worse driver.
When Stu is informed that he could very well die if he continues to box, he decides that it’s time to pursue another profession. The 30-something Stu announces to his mother that he’s going to be an actor. He may not have any training but he has a lot of personality. Stu’s mother suggests that it might be a little late in life for Stu to pursue a career as a film star but Stu packs up and leaves for Montana for California.
He does manage to land one gig, a commercial for a mop. But Stu’s acting career never really takes off. Instead, he gets a job working in a deli. It’s there that he first spots Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a Sunday school teacher. When Carmen tells Stu that she wouldn’t even consider dating a man who was not baptized, Stu begins RCIA at the local parish. Eventually, he’s baptized into the parish but it’s not until he’s nearly killed in a motorcycle accident and has a vision of Mary that he truly starts to believe. He also comes to feel that he’s been called to the priesthood, despite the fact that it means ending his relationship with Carmen. Stu enters the seminary, under the watchful eye of the initially skeptical but eventually supportive Monsignor Kelly (Malcolm McDowell). However, Stu soon finds himself facing his greatest challenge when he’s diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a disease that will eventually rob him of his ability to care for himself.
When Father Stu was first released in April, it received a lot of attention for being an R-rated film about faith. But the fact that the characters frequently (and colorfully) curse is actually one of the best things about Father Stu. People curse. Both the religious and the non-religious curse. Catholics especially curse. When you find out that you have an incurable disease that’s going to kill you by the time you turn 50, you’re going to curse regardless of how much faith you may or may not have. Far too many films about religion seem to take place in some strange world where the 50s never ended and people still say, “Darn,” when faced with the world’s problems. To its credit, Father Stu‘s characters never lose their edge.
Father Stu also received a lot of negative attention for the involvement of Mel Gibson. That’s understandable but, at the same time, there’s probably no contemporary actor who is more convincing as a self-destructive alcoholic than Mel Gibson. For better or worse, Gibson brings a certain authenticity to the role and that authenticity is what a film like Father Stu needs.
In the lead role, Mark Wahlberg brings a lot of sincerity to the role of Stu. When we’re first introduced to Stu, he’s earnest but he’s not particularly smart. He doesn’t think things through. He’s the type of guy who will work hard in his job without understanding that it’s still not a good idea to show up at work looking like you’ve spent the weekend fighting people in an alley for loose change. As a result of Wahlberg’s performance, it’s easy to see why everyone in Stu’s life is skeptical when he announces that he’s going to become a priest. However, it’s also due to his performance that Stu’s eventual transformation is undeniably moving. Wahlberg’s rough-edged sincerity keeps the film from becoming overly mawkish after Stu discovers that he’s ill. He remains a fighter from beginning to end and it’s hard not to want to see him win.
Father Stu is probably the epitome of the type of film that audiences love but critics hate. But you know what? Sometimes, the audiences are right and sometimes, critics try way too hard to be cynical. Father Stu is a touching movie, one that serves as an antidote to the God’s Not Dead-style of movies about religion. It’s a good movie that, like its protagonist, never stops fighting.