At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Father Stu “2022”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Docudrama/Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Jacki Weaver, Mel Gibson, Teresa Ruiz, Malcolm McDowell, Niko Nicotera, Ned Bellamy, Chiquita Fuller, Cody Fern, Annie Lee/Runtime: 124 minutes

Alright so I am going to admit something to you dear reader that may come as a wee bit of a surprise. That being that although I am someone who is completely accepting and ok with whatever religious beliefs a person has I also, by and large, do not have nearly as much acceptance and/or fondness for religious cinema. I mean don’t get me wrong: when I say “religious cinema” I am referring to something like War Room, I’m Not Ashamed, and especially the Nicolas Cage Left Behind from 2014 (even though that movie is still unintentionally hilarious incidentally). Indeed that is because not only are slices of cinema like the three I mentioned not even close to being competently made or acted. Rather, it’s also because they can have the effect of alienating viewers who are not of the same faith as the characters in the movie (or of the demographic that these movies were clearly made for) for whatever reason or another. Thankfully, there are some slices of religious cinema that do NOT engage in that behavior at all with such films as The Last Temptation of Christ, Passion of the Christ, 2016’s Silence, and even 2006’s Amazing Grace proving to be among those that are not only competently made, but also fairly dependably performed and even accessible to a wide variety of audiences besides the religious denomination at the heart of it. The reason I bring this up to you dear reader is because I think you can add 2022’s new release, and the slice of cinema I am reviewing today, Father Stu to that list. Yes I will be the first to admit that this slice of cinema is heavily flawed in quite a few areas, but the script is fairly well-done and the cast (led by Mark Wahlberg) do manage to give fairly dependable performances. As such, Father Stu is by no means a great slice of cinema, but at the same time you could honestly do a whole lot worse if that’s any consolation….

The plot is as follows: Based on a real-life guy, Father Stu gets underway by introducing us to a guy by the name of Stuart Long, or “Stu” as everyone takes to calling him, as he spends his days working as a boxer in the state of Montana. However, as he is getting older we see that is not winning like he used to and his body is beginning to fall part so he decides to pack up the fighting game and head to L.A. in order to get into acting. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that his long-since estranged pop works in the field of construction in that area, but they only cross paths when Stu out of desperation attempts to “borrow” his dear ol’ dad’s truck so he can make it to an audition on time. Thus we see that, in order to make a living whilst waiting for that one role that will take him to the big time, our hero is able to find employment at a grocery store meat counter. It is also there incidentally where he meets a beautiful young woman named Carmen who he attempts to get a date with, but fails mostly because her parents won’t let her be with a guy who has not participated in the church ritual of baptism. Surprisingly, we see that our hero takes this in stride and decides to take part in what is known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and is soon thereafter successfully baptized by the Church and also able to date his lady love. Yet it isn’t long before, with things going swimmingly with both Carmen and her parents, we see tragedy rear its ugly head in our hero’s life in the form of a horrific motorcycle accident. However, upon waking up in the hospital, we learn that our hero strongly feels that he was visited at the crash by the Virgin Mary and, inspired by this vision, decides to try and become a member of the priesthood. As a result we see him ask to see his lady love who suspects he is wanting to pop the question, but is instead left bitter and crushed when he tells her the news that he is trying to enter the priesthood. We soon see that our hero shortly thereafter attempts to apply to the seminary only to be swiftly sent a letter of rejection in response. Undeterred however, we soon see that our hero makes the choice to continue on in his quest to become a priest in a manner that may be unorthodox, but by the end of it might just be one of the more inspiring stories you’ve seen in quite some time….

Now it should be noted that, very much in the same vein as the titular to say nothing of quite unconventional eventual priest himself, this slice of cinema most assuredly has a rough edge or 10 to it. Indeed the simplistic foundation that this slice of cinema is based on really does have the unfortunate side effect of making things from a behind the camera perspective a wee bit messy in regards to both undertaking and mood. This starts with the work done by this movie’s composer, one Dickon Hinchliffe, as he manages to insert in his trademark acoustic-reinforced rocky musical accompaniment as thickly and obviously as he possibly can. Yet we see that it also extends to the work done by this slice of cinema’s cinematography department which manages to meet what the musical accompaniment department accomplished head on by choosing to stumble and teeter-totter rather than stand strong whilst carrying all the weight that this slice of cinema is asking it to do. Thankfully, if there is one thing that fortunately is nowhere near as vanilla or fairly iffy as the other previously aforementioned ingredients it would have to be in regards to the script that this slice of cinema is operating with. Indeed beginner scribe/helmer Rosalind Ross has managed to pen an appropriately brusque and blunt script that easily stands as the best component that this slice of cinema has going for it besides perhaps the work being done by Mark Wahlberg in the titular role. Indeed here is a script that is full to the brim with speedy comebacks and fairly assertive quarrels that have more than their fair share of crude comedy, but also shows that literally darn near every moment of this film featuring dialogue of a wide variety is going to be quickly responded to with an answer that is more than just a little bit in terms of spirited.

Indeed there is not a single person in this slice of cinema who really feels like taking the time to be truly eloquent without getting some kind of response being fired back at them. It is with that in mind that I think it should point out that this slice of cinema does a wonderful job of providing personification to the idea of how a message that is very much to the point can often get a response that is very much to the point as well. An intriguing philosophy which I definitely think might aid this slice of cinema in being able to lure in a variety of different answers not only from those who are riveted, but those who might still need a fair bit of persuading in order to get it on board with this slice of cinema. Yet even with all of that going on, there is no denying that this slice of cinema is able to stay fairly on point to what actually happened albeit with some crafting and cinematic sculpting done in the name of both creative licensing to say nothing of cinematic compacting so everything can fit in a runtime of, including credits, 2 hours and some change. A fact that can be seen firsthand as we see that this slice of cinema literally speeds through the ten-plus years that the titular character spent in the seminary and instead gives off the vibe that it was really nothing more than just a few summers working at a church summer camp instead to say nothing of choosing to cut back on the years where the guy worked as a Catholic school teacher whilst trying to figure out where life was wanting him to head next respectively. Also I am very much aware that the parental figures in this played by Gibson and Weaver respectively may be portrayed a heck of a lot more negative and/or doubting than I am sure their characters were in real life, but at least the movie makes the choice to have their inspiring moment at the conclusion of this slice of cinema seem genuine. Thus yes this slice of cinema may have a few flawed efforts from some of the departments behind the camera, but ultimately if this man and his story is of any interest to you then definitely let this slice of cinema prove to be a fairly competent introduction.

Now I’m not going to lie: if you give Mark Wahlberg the chance to play a dunce of a dreamer who has muscle and the mouth of a sailor to match that’s not exactly a test of this man’s acting abilities since he’s played that part before (see 2013’s Pain and Gain for example). With that said though, this slice of cinema still manages to test Wahlberg’s range as a performer by taking the things that we have taken for granted from him and then manages to negate them completely. Indeed the character of Stu is one that, by and large, is easily the most in the way of vulnerability that audiences have been permitted to see Wahlberg go in a role and it is very much appreciated. Indeed I know that Wahlberg has made some mistakes in his past and it really does seem like this is his cinematic way of making penance, but it is still a fairly well done performance all the same. Incidentally, I think a lot of what I just wrote can also be applied to the work done in this by Mel Gibson as Stu’s dear ol’ pop Bill. Indeed I know Gibson is not exactly unfamiliar with the concept of bigotry to say nothing of having some rather questionable baggage off-screen. Yet Gibson, as he managed to show in the slice of cinema that is Daddy’s Home 2, shows that he has a truly phenomenal dynamic with Wahlberg especially when the two are playing father and son and as such actually gives a fairly good performance (one specific joke in the movie aside) of a character that seems to be made up of equal parts bitterness, sarcasm, and booze. Of course I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the work done in this by Jacki Weaver as Stu’s mom. Indeed Weaver has always been one of our more dependable character actresses and here she is aces in a role that is a brilliant blend of snarky yet also supportive and loving in equal measure. It should also be noted that every single member of this acting trinity does manage to possess a wonderful degree of both comradery as well as rapport with each other that really does go a long way toward making their highly off-kilter family dynamic wonderfully human and realistic. Now in terms of co-starring efforts, I feel that far and away one of the best choices was Malcolm McDowell who does a wonderful job as the astute and chilly monsignor. In all fairness though, I have seen this man play the Devil in a religious indie legal thriller so it really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise to learn he can also play someone on the other side of the fence incredibly well also. Now although the rest of the supporting cast does a good job with the material that they are given, I’m not entirely onboard with the casting of Ruiz in the role of Stu’s lady love. Not because Ruiz is a terrible actress, far from it, but because the chemistry she and Wahlberg possess in their scenes together is sadly very much the definition of the phrase “slim to none”.

All in all and at the end of the day what you are left with in regards to this slice of cinema is a film that is just enough in the way of engaging courtesy of some truly audacious beats in the narrative, fairly well done work in the visuals department, and at least a trinity of “big name actors” that are all being assembled here with the endgame in mind of trying to say something to those who haven’t already been accepted by the faith that is at the beating heart of this slice of cinema. It is when you look at this slice of cinema through that distinct prism that I feel that Father Stu might (with more than a fair share of emphasis being placed on might) have better odds at making some kind of dent both in terms of box office and viewer reception than some of the other faith-rooted true story cinema that theaters have seen here lately. This is especially true when you realize that this slice of cinema, unlike one in the vein of that downright atrocious I’m Not Ashamed, doesn’t target a specific religious denomination, has a cast that people will recognize to say nothing of actually being competent performers, and actually does care about being the best slice of cinema from a quality perspective that it can hope to be. Thus I think it is a fairly safe bet to make that any movie goer out there who has sat through (voluntarily or otherwise) enough of this distinct subgenre of movie magic and viewed them the way that someone like myself or any of my fellow film reviewing colleagues should be able to see that on at least an elementary craftsmanship level this slice of cinema is on a level all its own. No that doesn’t mean I find this slice of cinema one that I really admire in any way, but I am still willing to respectfully concede that this is at the very least a capably made one. Indeed when taking into account not only the oft beset individuals who are mixed up in this to say nothing of the entirely conventional collection of values that it stands behind, this film is the kind of cinema that those who bemoan the phenomenon known as cancel culture will consistently try to say time and time again that the land of movie magic is wholly against. Yet if you are a person who is a part of the aforementioned group then I implore you to take a brief moment from your crusade (as noble as it may be) and go give this slice of cinema your time and your money. No it won’t be up for any major awards next awards season, but honestly you could easily do a whole lot worse than this. Make of that therefore what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Father Stu “2022” a solid 3 out of 5.