Father Stu

Father Stu is a faith-based movie unlike any other I've seen. Aside from the R rating, its central figure isn't a holier-than-thou do-gooder. Instead, he's an undeniably flawed guy who uses those flaws to inspire other flawed people after entering the priesthood. The film is based on a real man, and it stays true to its subject's nature. It's got plenty of cursing and plenty of edgy moments. But it also has a sincere message about how none of us are un-savable, no matter how imperfect we may be.

Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) is a fast-talking schemer – the kind of fellow who charms people, even when they know he's being manipulative. He doesn't take no for an answer. He drinks too much and is often unemployed. Occasionally he has a scrape with the law. One day, while working the meat counter at a supermarket, he sees a pretty woman named Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) and attempts to invite her for dinner. She declines his bold advances. Stu asks around about her, learning that she's heavily involved in a local Catholic church. He starts coming by, even attending Bible study, in a blatant effort to get close to her.

The scheme works and they start dating. Then something unexpected happens. Stu really begins to get into Catholicism. He develops genuine faith. After surviving a horrible motorcycle accident, he goes a step further, deciding to become a priest. Carmen understandably has mixed emotions about this. His mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) and semi-estranged father Bill (Mel Gibson), on the other hand, are deeply opposed. They think religion is stupid, and openly mock his belief in God. Stu has to convince a very skeptical bishop (Malcolm McDowell) to let him try. In the meantime, he uses his own troubled past to preach a message that anyone can turn their life around by handing it over to the Lord.

Early scenes in Father Stu are very funny. Wahlberg, in one of the best performances of his career, doesn't hesitate to show the character's shortcomings in comic fashion. With a porn-star mustache and a street-smart patois, it's hilarious watching him make more traditional, conservative church people deeply uncomfortable. The actor plays those rough edges to perfection. Weaver and Gibson earn laughs too, for the sarcasm with which Kathleen and Bill react to their son's calling. When Stu tells Kathleen that he's going to be a priest, her response is, “For Halloween?”

The second half of the picture gives way to a legitimately touching theme. One of the best scenes finds Stu going into a prison, where he offers straight talk to the inmates about how society may not love them, but God still does. This most unusual priest offers himself up as an example, working to convince people who think they're lost causes that the exact opposite is true. Part of what makes Father Stu inspiring is that, in taking an R-rated approach, it essentially mimics the style of its subject. Viewers who would never consider watching a typical faith-based film might watch this one and be moved by its ideas.

Even if you aren't into the faith angle, the movie works simply as the story of a guy whose life goes from one direction to the complete opposite. Watching Stu transition from screw-up to devout priest is entertaining, due to the credible way Wahlberg portrays the character's arc. Certain elements, like the church's initial hesitance toward Stu, are either underplayed or not delved into as realistically as they could have been, and the subplot about the fractured relationship between Stu and Bill doesn't necessarily add as much as it could. Father Stu still has plenty working in its favor, though. Thanks to Wahlberg's spot-on performance, this tale of a guy who goes from sinner to priest is both humorous and uplifting.

out of four

Father Stu is rated R for language throughout. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.