Father Stu, review: Mel Gibson, Mark Wahlberg and an ill-advised Hitler joke

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Mark Wahlberg as the real-life boxer-turned-priest Stuart Long - Karen Ballard
Mark Wahlberg as the real-life boxer-turned-priest Stuart Long - Karen Ballard

The last time Mel Gibson and Mark Wahlberg played father and son, it was in the crass comedy sequel Daddy’s Home 2 (2017), full of lecherous routines about the apple not falling far from the tree. They’re at it again in Father Stu, and remain, it must be said, thoroughly convincing at having shared DNA. It’s something about the grooves in the forehead, the regularly bared pearly-whites, and the ability to flip into a scowling rage at any provocation.

With a sinking feeling, though, you realise their intent this time around is a lot more serious. We’re in inspirational-true-story territory, faith-based-redemption-of-Mel territory, and perhaps most worryingly of all, Best-Actor-Oscar-bid-for-Marky-Mark territory. On balance, it’s a no.

Wahlberg plays the real-life Stuart Long, an amateur boxer from Montana who followed a circuitous and rocky path to becoming a Catholic priest, while also succumbing to a rare degenerative muscle disease.

After his boxing career stalled, Stu first spent years in Los Angeles trying to get a leg-up into the acting profession. This is covered with a montage of him working in a grocery store, asking every customer who comes in if they know people in the business. Bit by bit, his shoulders slump, and he loses the will to keep trying.

But that’s not to say his libido can’t shine a light. When a beautiful stranger called Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) catches his roving eye, he stalks her to church, where she teaches Sunday school, and so his gradual road to enlightenment begins.

Watching a horny roughneck find God, despite separated parents (Gibson and Jacki Weaver) who lost their faith when his younger brother died, has fairly predictable dramatic potential. But it’s Stu’s mid-life diagnosis that proves the true test of his piety, even threatening to derail this new calling, because of fears from his clerical elders that his physical deterioration might disgrace the sacrament.

Wahlberg has no trouble riffing his way through the early scenes here, which practically retread his fresh-off-the-boat antics from Boogie Nights. It’s only later that the hard work begins – for him and for us. He’s clearly poured a lot of effort into effecting this physical transformation, having gained 30lbs for the role. The film makes a spectacle of his added weight in a deeply unflattering lavatory scene – he’s seen bent over, groping, with hands failing him and trousers around his ankles.

There aren’t many indignities to Stu’s condition which are left to an audience’s imagination, that’s for sure. The script’s low point is having a doctor cheerily remark that erectile function, for anyone living with his type of inflammatory muscle disease, is one of the last things to go. He may need his grimacing, alcoholic dad to help him get off the toilet floor, but heaven forbid that a Wahlberg character endure that other, ultimate insult to his virility.

Father Stu’s writer-director is Rosalind Ross, who happens to be Gibson’s girlfriend of four years, and has done half her job half well: her dialogue is promisingly tart, even when her blocking, shooting and handling of the actors betrays a feeble lack of experience.

That being said, there’s one real clanger of a line when Gibson’s Bill compares Stu’s ordination as roughly akin to “Hitler joining the ADL”. It’s perhaps not a great idea, given Gibson’s infamous tirade against Jewish people in 2006, to have him bring up the Anti-Defamation League as a screwball zinger here. Or Hitler.

As his estranged wife Kathleen, who has kept up better relations with their son, a weepy Jacki Weaver feels like she’s wandered into the wrong film; a welcome, restrained Malcolm McDowell does better as the kindly monsignor who decides to give Stu a chance.

The movie isn’t awful, just sapping and strained. It’s a flexing of Serious Acting chops that offers an open-armed welcome to the already devout, while suggesting that Stu’s brand of unapologetic machismo makes him exactly the kind of down-to-earth convert the priesthood needs.

In or out of a wheelchair, he’s the least namby-pamby cassock-wearer you could find – an alpha dog in a collar. Having indulged Stu’s inner rage, the film's real problem is only mounting a shallow pretence that it’s ever fully exorcised.

15 cert, 124 min. In cinemas from May 13

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