Opinion

Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson seek redemption in Father Stu

The film's disgraced stars complicate its Catholic-movie absolution

Father Stu is a rarity in the world of faith-based cinema.

Not in every way, mind you. It's still full of characters who serve a story of religious conversion, rather than feel genuinely alive and engaging. It's still dogmatic, and dramatically inert as a result. But unlike the evangelical (and intensely miracle-based) focus of movies like Heaven Is For RealMiracles From Heaven, or Breakthrough, it's about the more explicitly codified traditions of Catholicism. And unlike the B- and C-list casts of even the higher-profile Christian releases, Father Stu features two extremely famous movie stars who also happen to be two of the film industry's most prominent Catholics: star and producer Mark Wahlberg, with a disgraced-but-not-gone Mel Gibson in a supporting role.

Wahlberg is easily one of the biggest stars to ever topline a modern faith-based picture, and Father Stu fits with his predilection for playing characters based on real people, which he has done at least half a dozen times. Hewing even closer to his profile, Stuart Long was a boxer (like Wahlberg in The Fighter) and, in the film's telling, a youthful miscreant (like Wahlberg in real life) who unexpectedly became a Catholic priest later in life.

Wahlberg committed multiple acts of violent and often racially motivated assault as a teenager and young man, and is obviously attracted to redemption stories. As far back as Boogie Nights in 1997 and the far less high-minded The Big Hit in 1998, he's been trying to reconcile his characters' sins with a dose of unexpected innocence and sensitivity. It seems like at some point, this more allusive approach to Catholicism was not enough for his faith; he's even spoken, possibly jokingly, about seeking God's forgiveness over the sexually explicit (though hardly deviant) Boogie Nights. Hence a movie like Father Stu, where Wahlberg is supposed to use his movie-star charisma to make Stu's cocksure-yet-wounded carousing likable, then use his family-man gravitas to convince us that this man is repentant — and struggling manfully with his newfound faith when he's diagnosed with a rare and incurable muscle disease.

This might seem like a break from the movie-star self-aggrandizement Wahlberg has assumed in some recent films, where he's no longer content to merely play the irritable yet noble hero, instead gravitating toward characters who are supposed to be in possession of superhuman-level strengths of mind and/or body (see Mile 22, Uncharted, and Spenser Confidential for some particularly egregious examples). Yet there's still some movie-star preening in this more pious vehicle. When Stu does enter the Catholic faith in earnest, and then commits himself to priesthood, he's rarely shown doing much to help people, beyond some more plainspoken variations on the inspirational priest homily. Mostly, he's supposed to be inspiring because of what he simply is: a tenacious, dedicated guy with newfound faith in God. There are no major characters who are actually, actively enlightened by Father Stu; just vaguely inspired by his existence. There are, however, multiple reaction shots of parishioners noticing Stu's (which is to say, Wahlberg's) impressive bod when he doffs his shirt for his baptism.

Wahlberg and his physique do enter new territory in Father Stu: After withstanding so much bodily stress in so many of his other action and real-life disaster movies, Wahlberg plays a man whose body fails him. (He put on 30 pounds for the section of the film where Stu's decreasing mobility causes weight gain.) Sacrificial bodily suffering is some Mel Gibson-brand Catholicism, so it makes sense that Gibson himself is on hand to provide irascible commentary and his own spiritual redemption as Stu's alcoholic father. So many of Gibson's signature blockbusters feature him being tortured in some manner or another, and of course he famously offered a particularly gory crucifixion story with his blockbuster The Passion of the Christ.

Now that Gibson's real-life sins have been made more public, though, he seems to have largely opted out of suffering for them on-screen. (Maybe he feels that no longer being as bright a marquee name is punishment enough.) Many of his later-period performances are much like the one he gives in Father Stu: Reveling in cantankerousness as a man whose coarseness belies a bedrock decency — or, more accurately, a straight-talk correctness that can pass for decency. In this movie, whatever anguish he's supposed to express feels ersatz. The same goes for Wahlberg's roiling conflict, which only asks hard questions so far as it can answer them with affirmations.

Part of this is the theology of mainstream faith-based movies, where even misdeeds tend to stay on the chaste side, so as not to alienate their core audience. The routine of broader Christian-movie formulas — the handsome, conflicted, but ultimately special man; the good woman who shows him the way; the weak father who can be redeemed by the grace of his children —  actually sync up with the popular image of Catholicism as full of sacraments, rituals, and hierarchies. Father Stu suggests a new order of Hollywood Catholics, with Wahlberg ready to replace Gibson as its holiest figure. This is his body, now, given for you.

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