'Father Stu' review: Boxer-turned-priest drama lacks punch

Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson star in faith-based story.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Stuart Long tried boxing, and when that didn't work out, he went to Hollywood. When his break in the movies never came, he headed to the church, which is how we arrive at "Father Stu." 

Based on a true story and written and directed by Rosalind Ross, "Father Stu" is an earnest but wobbly drama which tells the story of a perpetual ne'er-do-well who found himself through religion right as he was diagnosed with an incurable disease. Its stakes never feel quite worthy of a feature film, though its level of inspirational value is likely to fall in direct correlation with each individual viewer's level of denominational faith.   

Mark Wahlberg in "Father Stu."

Mark Wahlberg plays Stu, a past-his-prime amateur boxer in Montana whose in-ring career is drying up fast. His folks, Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) and Bill (Mel Gibson), have long since split, having never recovered from the death of their other son at the age of 5. Stu has never really found his place in this world, though he's always been blessed with the gift of gab. 

After heading out to L.A. on a whim to make it in the movies, he's working day shifts at a mom and pop grocery store to pay the bills. That's where from behind the meat counter he sees Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) and decides to track her down. His only way to her is through her church group, and in his pursuit of her, he pretends to be a religious man. 

Is it a ruse? Sort of, but Ross isn't deliberate in telegraphing (or really, identifying) her characters' motivations. Stu nearly dies in a motorcycle accident, which shakes him up, causing him to dig further into this whole faith thing. He decides to become a priest, although he has his doubters. When he begins suffering from a rare muscle disease that slowly shuts down most of the function in his body, he bolsters his faith, and he begins to reach more people through his words. He finally finds his calling, just as his clock begins to run out.  

"Father Stu" zigs and zags but never truly connects, in part because it takes so many sharp turns. That's life, in a sense, but Ross doesn't do a convincing job of distilling Stu's story into a tale of triumph, which is where "Stu" is aiming. Its big, transcendent moment never arrives.  

Wahlberg, who reportedly gained 30 pounds of weight for the role (and who is saddled with an unfortunate fat suit late in the film), is committed in his part, and Gibson is convincing as his angry, grizzled father who late in life gets a chance to right some of his own wrongs. (Weaver, meanwhile, gets the film's best line, when Stu tells her he's going to be a priest and she asks, "for Halloween?") "Father Stu" has an R-rated edge that separates it from the majority of faith-based offerings, but it still has a hard time reaching past the first few pews. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Father Stu'

GRADE: C

Rated R: for language throughout

Running time: 124 minutes

In theaters