Asking if Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) has problems with male authority is like asking if the Pope is Catholic. The amateur boxer isn’t speaking to his alcoholic dad (Mel Gibson), mouths off to the police, and literally punches a Jesus statue. When the doctor tells him his body isn’t up to fighting anymore, Stu lets him know what he thinks about that.
With professional boxing off the table, Stu makes the logical decision to leave rural Montana and become a big Hollywood movie star. His mother (Jacki Weaver) asks if he isn’t a little too old, but Stu just knows his good looks and charisma will take him all the way. Wahlberg is perfect as the charming lunkhead, though that’s not the only reason he was determined to make this film.
Based on a true story, Father Stu is about personal growth, forgiveness, redemption, and faith. Not exactly themes that attract audiences or investors when there’s a new superhero or Tom Cruise movie on the way. Believing this story is important, Wahlberg put his own money on the line.
The failed boxer doesn’t find much success in Tinseltown, but he does find love working at the grocery store when Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) comes in during his shift. The hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Stu is willing to do whatever it takes (except apparently clean up his language) to win her heart. If she wants him baptized into the church, he’ll become the best Catholic she’s ever seen.
But after a near-death experience Stu feels called to go above and beyond her expectations and become a priest. Having already slept with him, she feels betrayed. Stu’s mother thinks he’s lost his mind. His dad takes it personally. And the seminary, unimpressed with Stu’s lack of credentials, rejects him. As always, Stu finds a way.
Then the unthinkable happens. He’s diagnosed with a rare muscular disease similar to ALS. Now the church questions his ability to carry out the duties of the priesthood. Stu has given up athletic and artistic pursuits. He’s given up love. Now it seems that God doesn’t want him, either. Stu doesn’t go so far as to curse the day he was born, but his dad will do it for him.
What happens next is nothing short of miraculous, but not perhaps in the way we would choose.
Unfortunately, the harsh language seems to have kept audiences away. “No one wants to hear the gospel from the mouth of a gangster,” an aspiring priest tells Stu. The same could be said of Wahlberg, whose own path to grace is well documented. But Stu’s reply? “Maybe that’s just what they need.” (Rated R, Netflix)