It’s safe to say that I didn’t know what I was in for when I sat down for Father Stu. I hadn’t seen a trailer, and my only impression of the film was of the poster image, depicting Mark Wahlberg playing a boxer and also a priest, along with a few half-remembered, scrolled-past headlines concerning his disturbing weight gain. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting; maybe some kind of Sister Act, but with boxing? I don’t know how that makes sense but I was vaguely intrigued.
Father Stu, distributed by Sony Pictures, definitely has the tone of that kind of lighthearted romp, so it was with considerable surprise that I discovered, about 20 minutes in, that what I was watching a religious movie. Not just a movie with some Catholicism in it, but a full-on hard sell for Papism itself, complete with a near-death experience and a protagonist’s religious awakening. Father Stu is essentially Heaven is for Real for TradCaths.
In retrospect, there had been clues. Like the fact that Mel Gibson is in Father Stu, playing Mark Wahlberg’s father. What’s the connection between Mel Gibson and Mark Wahlberg? The more astute among us might’ve noted a certain flavor of fervent Catholicism — Gibson’s illustrated by his having directed The Passion Of The Christ (still far and away the most successful religious movie ever made, a massive bet Gibson placed on himself that paid off beyond his wildest dreams, essentially the faith-based Avatar), Wahlberg’s in more cryptic clues, like telling the world he’d become religious and quit masturbating, all the way back in 2012 (this during the same interview in which he famously said he would’ve stopped 9/11).
Another connection is Gibson’s 30-year-old girlfriend, Rosalind Ross, who wrote and directed Father Stu. A champion equestrian (“the most decorated American vaulter of all time“) turned screenwriter who reportedly started dating Gibson in 2014, Ross told the OC Register recently that Wahlberg had been attached to a script she’d written (a blind submission, she noted), and through that association, eventually sold her on writing and directing his idea for a biopic about Stuart Long, a boxer-turned-priest whose life Wahlberg had been trying to make into a movie for years.
Phew. Anyway, this is all the backstory of which I was completely ignorant when I sat down for my imagined boxing Sister Act. Wahlberg plays Stu Long, a squirrely ne’er-do-well we first meet as a child, when he’s lip-synching along to Elvis*. His stereotypically crotchety father, Bill, played by Mel Gibson, is unimpressed with the exuberant boy, muttering, “Kid, the only thing you got in common with The King is hrbble burbblbe berrgghh.”
I’m not exactly sure what the second half of the sentence was, but it was delivered like some kind of coarse punchline. It sets the tone for the ensuing film, which seems to consist almost entirely of opaque aphorisms that are only about 80% intelligible, thanks to a combination of poor sound mixing, odd writing, and confusing acting choices.
Both Wahlberg and Gibson seem to have modeled their Father Stu accents on Danny McBride, which is slightly confusing given that McBride has a North Carolina drawl, and Stuart Long grew up in Montana**. Whatever the case, a decent portion Father Stu‘s dialogue reminds me of an old Patton Oswalt bit in which he describes an open mic comedian nodding off on heroin during his set, who would set up jokes, fall asleep in the middle, and come to later in the bit, slurring impenetrable punchlines like “Man, you couldn’ give a cripple crab a crutch.”
Anyway, the young Elvis impersonator grows up to become a boxer, an affable journeyman brutalized in a series of bloody bouts delivered in montage, culminating in a trip to the doctor — assisted by his mother, played by the great Jackie Weaver. Mama Long, gently at first and then more strenuously, tries to suggest to her increasingly over-the-hill son that he should probably have a better life plan than getting punched in the face.
“But Mama, I just got paid!” Stu tells her.
“And then what, you’re gonna go pro? Son, you’re at the age when most guys start thinking about retiring.”
Which is another weird sequence of dialogue, since the defining feature of “amateur boxing” is not getting paid. As Bill Murray’s character in The French Dispatch tells his writers, “whatever you do, just try to make it seem like you did it on purpose.” Father Stu is chock full of dramatic wrinkles like this, with an intentionality that’s impossible to divine.
Stu is forced to retire from boxing for vaguely-defined medical reasons, and decides to move to Hollywood to try to make it as an actor. Refusing to give a creepy propositioning agent a blowjob in order to get ahead, Stu ends up working at a supermarket (shades of Mickey Rourke working the deli counter in The Wrestler). It’s there he meets Father Stu‘s love interest, Carmen (Teresa Ruiz from Narcos Mexico, who looks a little like Latina Latoya Jackson), a strict Catholic who Stu attempts to woo by becoming a fixture at church. This clearly a ruse, since he still loves drinkin’, cussin’, and raisin’ hell a lot more than the Lord.
It’s during this period that Stu gets drunk one night and takes off on his motorcycle. He gets hit by a car — Father Stu‘s best-choreographed sequence — putting him into a coma, a near-death experience followed by a miraculous recovery that becomes Stu’s conversion event.
Much like Heaven Is For Real protagonist Colton Burpo, Stu returns from the white light with newfound wisdom and religious fervor. It makes for an interesting point of comparison, this inherently Catholic vision of Father Stu contrasted with Heaven Is For Real‘s protestant take on this same basic framework. Whereas protestant faith is flowery and abstract — with Burpo learning that, well, Heaven is for real — Catholicism is far more concerned with the physical, corporeal form of Jesus. The Passion was hyperfocused on the brutality and gore of the crucifixion itself. Similarly, when Jesus appears to Stu, he does so in physical form, as a scarred barfly who tries to tell Stu to stay off his motorcycle that night. “Sheesh, what was that guy drinking?” Stu asks the bartender.
“Just water,” the bartender says, portentously.
Likewise, Stu doesn’t just enter the pearly gates and reconnect with his dead brother (Father Stu borrows the “the wrong kid died!” trope from Walk Hard, with basically zero payoff). Instead, Stu meets the actual Virgin Mary. Catholic Jesus isn’t just a metaphor for love, he’s a man with blood and guts, who drinks water (?) and has a mother (who, post-acension comes to function a bit like Jesus’s publicist).
What the films have in common is an utterly unconvincing adversarial worldview. Militantly atheist psychologists try to convince the Burpos that their son hadn’t actually been to Heaven. Sneering townsfolk shout at Colton’s sister: “Hey, Burpo! We heard your brother got to ride Jesus’s pony!” (an actual line from Heaven Is For Real).
Borrowing this protestant evangelical framework for Father Stu‘s essentially Catholic message makes for a sometimes rickety whole. Playing the role of sneering townsfolk in Father Stu are Stu’s parents, who aren’t just bemused by Stu’s deathbed conversion but actively hostile to it. Upon hearing that Stu plans to become a priest, Stu’s father hands Stu his revolver, saying “I’d rather you put me in the ground than suffer the shame of having my son be a priest!” (Or something like that, it was delivered in the form of yet another garbled aphorism.)
Huh? They’re deathly embarrassed by a priest? I don’t buy it.
Later on, Stu’s first application to the seminary gets rejected (is that even a thing?). This at the hands of a disapproving Monsignor played by A Clockwork Orange‘s Malcolm McDowell (who previously played the devil in 2010’s faith-based indie Suing The Devil). Stu doesn’t get accepted until a surprise visit to the Monsignor’s office where Stu wins him over with more opaque aphorisms. Monsignor, you wouldn’ give a cripple crab a crutch, but is that what Jesus would do?
These fake adversaries are unconvincing partly on account of the films’ pedigree: both notable collaborations between organized religion and their avowed enemy, the entertainment industry establishment. Yet these movies themselves are proof that the Lord works in mysterious ways, like through the profit motive.
Stu goes to the seminary, where his friends include the good cop Ham (Aaron Moten) and jealous hater Jacob (Cody Fern), the latter of whom seems to be gay-coded in almost every respect. Which eventually leads to a tearful confession late in the movie in which Cody admits… that he has daddy issues. What?? Is he not gay? Was he supposed to seem gay? It’s impossible to tell what parts of this movie were intentional.
Meanwhile, Stu gets fat for some reason. In a movie that Mark Wahlberg sold by giving interviews about how he drank olive oil to gain weight (the most Catholic of weight-gain strategies), the reasons for Stu’s weight gain remain, like so much else in Father Stu, mostly arcane. He joins the seminary and the next thing you know he has a potbelly, as if the Catechism operates on The Santa Clause rules.
There’s another late-second act twist that I won’t spoil here, but you can read all about if you look up the real Stuart Long. Suffice it to say, it allows Wahlberg, in some tremendously unconvincing fat-face makeup (why was he chugging Lucini if they were just going to put water balloons on his face anyway?!?) to deliver even more impenetrable nuggets of folk wisdom.
Whereas Colton Burpo, having found God, got to ride off into a sun-dappled wheat field of heartland prosperity, the OG Catholics understand that true grace comes from suffering. As personified (and vocalized) by Stu, every added misery brings Stu closer to God. Protestant Jesus makes you suffer then rewards you with cool stuff. For Catholic Jesus, the suffering is the cool stuff. (For the Italian-Americans in the audience, this may go a long way towards explaining why our Nonis are the way they are).
Father Stu is exactly this kind of intriguing mix, of illuminating religious philosophy and utterly baffling narrative choices. It’s vaguely inspiring, slightly tedious to sit through, and ultimately unknowable, like any good Catholic sermon.
*At least, Gibson’s character references “The King” — it sounded like the Chuck Berry version to me, but it could just be that’s the version I know the best.
**An entirely different-sounding accent, characterized by distinctive rounded R sounds, “squash” pronounced like “squarsh,” and unique vowel shifts rendering “creek” as “crick” and “bag” as “beg.”