“Life’s gonna give you a gutful of reasons to be angry,” a mysterious stranger tells Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) near a key turning point in his ambivalent quest for meaning. “You only need one to be grateful.”
It’s a pretty healthy-minded aphorism, but Stuart is skeptical. I forget his exact response, but it’s something about that being a terrible ratio. This is a key part of Father Stu’s canny appeal: For at least half the movie, Stu’s caustic, often foul-mouthed irreverence provides a humorous counterweight to the uplifting perspectives of believing characters around him. It might be going too far to say that a spoonful of vinegar helps the sugar go down, but if there’s medicine here, it doesn’t taste like that either.
Based on the unlikely true story of an amateur boxer turned priest who died of a rare degenerative disease, Father Stu leans on Wahlberg’s mischievous charm and buoyant aura of invincibility, with hints of something darker and more fragile beneath the surface. Stuart approaches life in some respects like a pickup artist approaching women, coming on strong without fear of any number of rejections and willing to try as many times as it takes. That’s a more viable strategy in Hollywood, where Stuart’s dalliance with acting ambitions isn’t totally fruitless, than in boxing, where nonmetaphorical blows take a cumulative toll that can’t be ignored forever.
It's when his eye actually falls on a young woman named Carmen (Teresa Ruiz, Narcos: Mexico) that we see just how unlike a pickup artist Stu is. The confidence and fearlessness are there, but Stu is all heart-on-sleeve sincerity and candor: no feigned disinterest, no backhanded compliments, and, above all, no transactional, short-term thinking. When Carmen tells him that being Catholic for her means no sex before marriage, and then adds that she could never date someone who isn’t baptized, Stu is ready not only to be baptized on the spot, but also to settle in for RCIA.
Stuart’s commitment to Carmen is substantial; his commitment to her Church and her God less so. He learns to say grace before meals in Spanish, but it’s a party trick to impress her pious parents. He gives up alcohol for Lent, but has no particular intention of giving up heavy drinking. He’s willing to make substantial changes, but, as he tells his fretfully concerned mother, Kathleen (Jacki Weaver), it’s all about what it means to Carmen — not to him.
Not every convert has a Damascus Road experience, but when Stuart gets his, it’s far more traumatic than being knocked off a horse. Writer-director Rosalind Ross, in her feature debut, makes strategic use of restrained magical realism here: In states of variously boozy or woozy altered consciousness, Stu has experiences that at least suggest encounters with Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Wisely, the film neither leans into nor echoes these moments; they aren’t presented as evidence of anything, and Stuart’s later spiritual highs and lows are presented naturalistically, bereft of any hint of mystical revelations or consolations.
A dramatic failing of too many faith-based films is presenting conversion either as the climax or as the answer to all the protagonist’s troubles. Harry Cheney, who teaches at Chapman University’s Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, wrote nearly four decades ago in a Christianity Today film review of a Billy Graham production that “an encounter with Christ should propel the action, not end it.” Very few conversion-themed religious films made in the intervening years satisfy that maxim.
Father Stu is one of the few that does. First, Stuart turns his pit-bull determination toward pursuing a vocation to the priesthood: a choice as incomprehensible to Carmen as it is to Stuart’s irreligious, estranged parents, Kathleen and Bill (Mel Gibson). Kathleen has generally been the neglected voice of reason in her son’s life, while Bill, who lives in a perpetual haze of alcohol and bitterness, seems to have exuded constant disappointment with Stuart since he was a child bouncing around the house in his underwear imitating Elvis. Then there’s Malcolm McDowell’s by-the-book seminary dean, Monsignor Kelly, who has predictable objections to admitting a candidate with Stuart’s checkered background, though compared to Stuart’s parents he’s a pushover.
Then the other shoe drops. The lingering effects of his boxing career and his shattering motorcycle accident were only a prelude to Stuart’s ultimate physical challenge: the onset of a rare degenerative disease, inclusion body myositis. Throughout his story, from roughing up a sleazy Hollywood exec over a lewd quid pro quo to shooting hoops on the seminary basketball court, Stuart’s athletic physique has been part and parcel of his forceful, confident persona. Now his future ability even to elevate the chalice during the consecration at Mass — assuming he makes it to ordination — is in doubt.
Wahlberg compellingly inhabits his character’s struggles, and the screenplay is decently structured even when it sometimes lacks persuasive depth or context. It’s one thing to elide the real Stuart Long’s years exploring his vocation — teaching in a Catholic school, serving with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in NYC, and earning a Master’s degree in philosophy at Franciscan University in Steubenville — but nothing we see of Stuart the seminarian suggests graduate-level training in philosophy or any other topic. There’s no sense of his seminary formation and no acknowledgement of his ordination to the transitional diaconate. The plain-spoken righteousness Stuart brings to a prison visit and an early homily was already there in Stuart’s first run-in with Monsignor Kelly arguing for his admission to seminary. So is he growing?
Yes, as his disease progresses. When Stuart tells a congregation that “suffering is the fullest expression of God’s love,” lightly adding that while that may be hard to accept, the fact that it’s coming from a man in a wheelchair should at least impel listeners to consider it, the dearth of his old bravado helps to sell the line. Even so, it’s one of a few lines I would flag theologically. Suffering can unite and conform us to Christ, and God is never nearer to us than when we suffer — but suffering in itself is not an “expression” of God’s love, let alone its “fullest” expression.
Another dubious line: “We aren’t human beings having a spiritual experience, we’re spiritual beings having a human one. If God doesn’t care about this body, why should you?” This borders on Platonic anthropology. All of Catholic anthropology and soteriology — the doctrines of creation and Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, the sacramental economy, and the resurrection of the body — affirm that as we are not essentially spirits that happen to have bodies; we are a unity of body and soul, both beloved by our Creator, both redeemed by Christ. (Ross, a non-Catholic and Gibson’s romantic partner since 2014, expressed concerns, perhaps not entirely unfounded, about taking on this story. In interviews Wahlberg has credited Boston priest Fr. Jim Flavin, “the most positive influence in my faith and my life,” as advisor on the film. The Boston Archdiocese recently declared Flavin on leave without permission.)
There are other caveats. The film doesn’t really reckon with Stuart’s insensitivity to Carmen, who is expected to forgive but is never offered an apology. I appreciate Bill’s reparative journey in his relationship with Stuart, but I would have liked to see some sign of work in his relationship with Kathleen before a sweet scene at the end. And I could have done without the priggish, prissy seminarian (a character type often described as queer-coded) who is antagonistic toward Stuart and is ultimately revealed not to have a true vocation.
In spite of these issues, Stuart’s spiritual trajectory remains moving, aided by committed performances from Wahlberg and Ruiz as well as a deeply vulnerable turn by Weaver. Wahlberg’s physical transformation from ripped boxer to puffy invalid is striking, but it’s the way he moderates his inner spark without extinguishing it that makes Father Stu the persuasively inspirational figure he finally is.
I recently spoke with Mark Wahlberg and Teresa Ruiz via Zoom about making the film and what it meant to them.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.