Particularly offensive scenes open Father Stu, the new film about Stuart Long, a boxer of apparently questionable morals who became a Catholic priest. Mark Wahlberg plays our hero. In those early scenes, Mel Gibson, as Stu’s father, Bill, taunts the boy Stu (Tenz McCall) with a monologue about excretion, which transitions into scenes from the grown Stu’s amateur boxing career. Mr. Wahlberg shadow boxes wearing only a groin guard – very much like the underwear ads he used to do for Calvin Klein. Then in the ring, there are violent punches, spitting of blood, and copious F-bombs.
Stu leaves his home in Montana for Hollywood, hoping for a career as an actor. He is reluctantly reunited with his father. There is swearing. And drunkenness.
It’s possible to put up with such nastiness in an allegedly “Catholic” film only in expectation of the transformation of Stu Long. Mr. Wahlberg is reasonably convincing as a scumbag, as is Mr. Gibson. Father Stu is directed by Mr. Gibson’s romantic partner, Rosalind Ross. Mr. Gibson, 66, and Miss Ross, 32, have a child, Gibson’s ninth.
Half an hour into the film, it’s hard not to get fidgety because of the repetition of the obvious: Stu is basically a brutal, shallow drifter, and the film’s first third is uncomfortable to watch—a possible occasion, in fact, for self-loathing, since one begins looking forward to Stu’s next cringe-worthy failure rather than to his conversion. It’s like slowing down to ogle a traffic accident.
If you know much about Mark Wahlberg’s life, you will almost suppose you’re watching a biopic as much about him as about Stu. I suspect this is what he had in mind when he reached out to Miss Ross to write the script and ultimately to direct the movie. Mr. Wahlberg’s early life involved criminal activity and violence, before he broke out into his careers as rapper, underwear model, actor-producer, and born-again Catholic.
But in developing this tenuous similarity, the more interesting real-life story of Fr. Long is lost.
For instance, the film deals not at all with Long’s education until he is admitted to a seminary. No mention is made of the fact that he was a college graduate.
At about 40 minutes into Father Stu, I wondered how this man could possibly handle the academic formation necessary to become a priest or why the rector (played by Malcolm McDowell) would even consider him for admission.
True, sitting at table with his Mexican girlfriend Carmen’s family, he prays in Spanish, but this is the first indication we have that there might be more intellectual depth in this man than we’ve seen so far. (Carmen is played beautifully by Teresa Ruiz.)
If only Stu, his father, and mother (Jacki Weaver) would say the F-word in Spanish, the film would be less offensive, unless you’re a Spanish speaker, of course. In any case, the relentless obscenities and the aforementioned violence are why this is an R-rated film.
More significantly, the film not only leaves out the fact that the real Stu Long went to a Catholic college, but also that he taught at a Catholic high school in California, and (this is the kicker) that he was in management at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum – for seven years! All this, presumably, before he was baptized and received into the Church. And, pace the poster above, I’m not sure Stu Long was ever incarcerated.
And then it happens: A lady in white and blue comes to Stu at his lowest point, a near-fatal motorcycle accident, and her words of reassurance propel him into a new life.
In the hospital after the accident, a (I think intentionally) funny moment comes when Carmen suggests to Bill Long, who is taking slugs of booze from a flask, that he allow her to drive him home – a kind of teasing reference to issues Mel Gibson has had in real life.
When, oh so suddenly, Stu announces to Carmen that he wants to be a priest, she pronounces him delusional, not least because – after the accident – they’d had sex together. She says, “I disgraced myself before God, so you could have another flight of fancy.”
When Stu tells his mother that he’s going to be a priest, she deadpans, “For Halloween.” And when he tells his father the news, Mr. Gibson makes another teasing reference to his own real life, when he says that Stu becoming a priest “. . . is like Hitler joining the ADL.” Credit there to Miss Ross, whose dialog often surprises.
And then Fr. Stu gets sick.
The film necessarily shoves together aspects of the real priest’s life story, as would any movie about a man who dies at 50. That death, from a disease called inclusion body myositis (or IBM), seems in the film to follow hard upon Stu’s ordination. In fact, he lived with and then died from IBM seven years later. No reference in the film is made to his age, so one might assume he was in his 20s when he entered the seminary. In fact, he was 38. One sees why so much of Stu’s real life is left out.
The film’s very moving end, which includes brief archival footage of the real Fr. Stuart Long’s testimony, was almost spoiled by dialog in which Mr. Wahlberg (as Stu, ballooned by the disease) says, “The experience of suffering is a chance to grow closer to Christ.” That’s fine, but then he says that even Christ had his moment of despair on the Cross. So . . . this is the Gospel according to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”? I’d have thought Miss Ross or Mr. Gibson or Mr. Wahlberg would know that Our Lord was quoting the 22nd Psalm.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is not an expression of despair but Christ’s last prophetic utterance, to wit: I am He of whom the psalmist wrote.
Still, Father Stu confirms the statement often attributed to St. Augustine: “There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Bevil Bramwell’s Conversion: How Far Does It Go?
Joseph R. Wood’s The Inversion of Conversion