Director: Rosalind Ross
Writers: Rosalind Ross
Starring: Mel Gibson, Mark Wahlberg, Jacki Weaver
Runtime: 124 mins
MPAA Rating: R
The compelling Christian faith-based film canon is pitifully small. The majority of these efforts are far too focus-grouped and inoffensive while taking advantage of the charitable nature of their target audience and failing to put requisite effort in coming across more broadly as sincere. These explicitly Christian films generally come in two varieties: the derivative Christian-ized version of a mainstream genre flick (e.g. Facing the Giants, Fireproof) and the awkwardly staged setup for an extended lecture or dialogue on a religious topic (e.g. God’s Not Dead). In either case, the message of the Christian Gospel is rarely presented with any elegance or force despite the cinematic tools at the filmmakers’ disposal. For comparison, the 1959 epic Ben Hur does a superior demonstration in just two coupled scenes involving Judah Ben-Hur and Jesus, drinking water, and no dialogue between the two. At present, the Christian entertainment market is desperate for a supply of high quality products.
Consequently, I was intrigued when I saw the promotional materials for Father Stu, the story of foul-mouthed boxer Stuart Long who has a dramatic life transformation after which he becomes a Catholic priest. This production has considerable amount of heft to it driven by the passion of Mark Wahlberg, a practicing Catholic, and employing the name recognition of the ever charismatic Mel Gibson. In fact, Gibson’s significant other Rosalind Ross writes and directs in her film debut.
Unfortunately, the entire film rests on the script’s and Mark Wahlberg’s shoulders and neither is up to the task. Ross has absolutely no clue how to appropriately use humor, and Mark Wahlberg just ends up chewing scenery. Wahlberg’s Stuart is a flippant, care-free screw up and drifter in the beginning, and the movie really wants you to know how funny this is. Stuart’s initial state of degeneracy is presented with an endless supply of comedic bits that feel as though they should be accompanied by a sitcom laugh track. Similarly, Stuart’s absent alcoholic father Bill, played by Mel Gibson who is barely in the movie, has an understandably strained relationship with his son. How is he presented? As this funny, cantankerous old man who stumbles around his trailer. When you are constantly blunting the sad state of affairs in your characters’ lives with comedy, it is extremely jarring when you flip a switch and beg the audience to start taking the drama completely seriously. What is worse is that the script is completely caught up in its own facile wit that it forgets to construct a real human character for Stuart.
Every aspect of the production is flat with a forgettable score, boring shot selection, and generally listless direction. The first act is the only portion of the movie that is watchable as the pacing hits a brick wall after Stuart has his inevitable come-to-Jesus moment. The latter stages of his life post-conversion are painfully boring as the film really has no idea how to explicate any sort of sincere human emotion. The pieces of a compelling story are there in the person of Stuart Long but the film flutters from biography highlight to biography highlight without a focus. The film oftentimes expects you to feel a certain way without putting in the necessary work to compel you to feel that way. For example, sad thing happens so you should feel sad now all the while having no meaningful connection to a believable character. You aren’t really empathizing with a real person ever, you are empathizing with a Wikipedia article.
Father Stu is disappointing since its heart is in the right place but has no grasp on how to convincingly pull off a narrative from the real-life source materials. Despite its mediocre strivings, Father Stu could be a harbinger of more high-brow faith-based efforts on the horizon. I certainly encourage any talented filmmakers to push forward with crafting morally well-grounded stories. Currently, the cinematic treatment Christianity gets from both adherents and detractors is generally quite abysmal. The alternative hopeful worldview of Christianity is preferable to much of the mainstream nihilism that pervades the big screen today, and I sincerely hope someone succeeds in the near future at effectively presenting its message using the medium of cinema.
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