Opening in theaters today:
Father Stu--Stuart Long was a failed boxer in Montana who became a failed actor in L.A. who became a Catholic convert and then a seminarian and ultimately a priest. Mark Wahlberg has turned Long's odd career trajectory into a Hollywood tale, and a juicy star vehicle, with this biopic.
After hearing the story from a priest who was friends with Long, Wahlberg developed it as a film project, but the writer-director is Rosalind Ross, better known as Mel Gibson's longtime girlfriend and the father of one of his children. Early on, Ross endows the film almost with the flavor of a '70s-era friends-in-low-places comedy; it wouldn't seem out of character if Stu had Clyde the Orangutan as a sidekick.
While working the meat counter in a supermarket, like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Stu beholds Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a soulful local beauty, falls hard for her at first sight, and traces her to her church, where he learns she's a devout Catholic. A nonbeliever himself, he nonetheless hangs around and even converts to be near her, much to the shock of his fretful mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) and bitter, distant father Bill (Mel Gibson). Gradually, Stu wears Carmen down; she responds to the intensity and seriousness of his passion for her.
She's prepared to marry him when, after recovering from a hideous accident, he announces that he's decided to become a priest instead. But his sufferings don't end when he gets to the seminary; quite the opposite. The Church leadership resists his priestly ambitions, first because of his rowdy background and later, disgustingly, because they fear that the muscular illness with which he's been afflicted makes him unworthy to perform the sacraments.
Although I'm not Catholic, like the real Stu Long I went to a Catholic college. Perhaps because I didn't grow up in the church, but received the benefit of an excellent Catholic liberal education, it's possible I'm in a position to be more appreciative of the institution than my many pissed-off lapsed Catholic friends. Besides, I've read too much Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene not to respond to this story.
But Stu winning the glorious Carmen's heart seemed like miracle enough to me; it seemed outrageous that he would then break it off with her to go to seminary. Still, my annoyance with his choice didn't make the sanctimony and hypocrisy he faced from the Church any less infuriating. In the end, I invested emotionally in his struggle; it's enough that it's what Stu wants.
There's reason, however, to suspect that the movie commits its own sins of omission. Ross's script pares down the real Stu's life to its most turbulent aspects, seemingly to make him look less accomplished, more of a desperate screw-up. It leaves out, among other things, the fact that he was a college grad before he went to seminary and spent years as the manager of the Norton Simon Art Museum before his calling. Wahlberg's portrait of him as a slovenly, drawly, dangling-cigarette barfly doesn't suggest this background.
All the same, it's an endearing characterization. Wahlberg blurts out his newfound spiritual insights with the cocksure authority of an eternally passionate novice; he's like an acquaintance that makes you roll your eyes and smile at the same time when you see him coming. Ruiz is lovely as Carmen, and Malcolm McDowell embraces his straight man role as a stuffy monsignor unable to discourage Stu. Taken on its own terms, as a peculiar, sweet yarn spun from truth, the movie is absorbing and engaging.
As for Gibson, he's rarely seemed happier; this movie puts him back in the world of masochistic hardcore fringe-Catholic body horror he so loves. His performance as Bill is potently baleful, and there's a startling moment in which he quips that Stu wanting to become a priest is like "Hitler wanting to join the ADL." That's a nervy and heavy-handed "meta" joke to put in that guy's mouth. After all, it works almost as well to say that it's like Mel Gibson wanting to join the ADL.
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