A few excerpts from Wednesday’s papers show a decidedly lukewarm reception from the secular media.
“Father Stu” is not your everyday Hollywood religious odyssey — it’s closer to “Diary of a Country Cutup.” It’s a surprisingly sincere movie about religious feeling, but it is also, too often, a dramatically undernourished one. The characters who surround Stuart are thinly drawn and pop in and out of the story. Mel Gibson has what should be a showpiece role, and God knows he rages away with gnarled conviction, but the father-son dynamics exist mostly in the abstract; it never feels like a lived-in relationship. Wahlberg, through prosthetics and 30 pounds of weight gain, winds up playing Stuart as a man of stout religious wisdom who transcends his own body. But the wisdom comes into him — and flows out of him — with a little too much facile punch. “Father Stu” often feels like a drama made for what is awkwardly called the faith-based market, with the film’s worshipful sentiments all in a line, its uplift never in doubt.
Admittedly, religious devotion is a notoriously difficult subject to dramatize, but Fred Zinnemann managed it in his excellent 1959 drama, The Nun’s Story, which took the time to explore the minutiae of a religious calling as well as the ambivalence that an aspirant might feel. Father Stu is more like the lite version of a conversion drama. Other elements in the story are similarly slapdash: Stu’s rapprochement with his cold, unforgiving father seems too painlessly accomplished, for example, as does the reunion of the estranged parents.
Given the failings of the script, the performances are often surprisingly effective. Wahlberg captures Stu’s charm without overselling it. Ruiz is engaging, and although Australian actress Weaver isn’t always convincing as a Montana mom, she has a few forceful scenes. Gibson actually gives one of the strongest performances of his career. He doesn’t soften the character, and even when Bill begins to warm toward Stu, Gibson doesn’t overplay the sentiment.
It’s a remarkable story, but “Father Stu” is a broad, somewhat brutish film. Ross’ screenplay lightly pummels the audience with the basic beats and beatdowns of Long’s life without ever letting us in on the emotional experience. The characters talk at each other (and at the audience) in vague platitudes, folksy aphorisms, biblical quotes and street-smart retorts. Wahlberg is in the familiar rapid-fire, rat-a-tat style he has developed over the years, tussling and bantering with everyone around him, and not even his encroaching disability can slow his motor-mouth. It can be entertaining but it’s rarely truly engaging, and the tell-not-show approach to the screenwriting renders the characters two-dimensional and hollow. We barely know who anyone really is, aside from Stuart, and large parts of his spiritual progression are glossed over.
There is a profound grace to be found in “Father Stu,” when everyone gets out of the way to let the message of suffering as spirituality just breathe. But one can’t help but feel it comes too late to have any significant impact.
From The New York Times:
Rosalind Ross, a writer directing her debut feature, and Wahlberg buck the expectations of the religious-salvation story by mostly keeping it light and barely taking a breath, with an extra nudge from a country-heavy soundtrack. (It’s no surprise that Wahlberg previously tried to develop Long’s story with David O. Russell, the director of the screwball existential comedy “I Heart Huckabees.”)
Stu’s travails feed into his salty homilies about getting closer to God, delivered with Wahlberg’s usual bluffness. That doesn’t automatically translate into a religious experience, and watching the movie can feel like a two-hour hearty handshake. But judging from the audience member at a preview screening who sang along with the credits song, it’s all part of the movie’s appeal.
As for religious media, there’s this, from Catholic News Service:
A tribute to a future cleric who showed dogged determination and grit in the face of a series of apparently insurmountable obstacles, writer-director Rosalind Ross’s profile also showcases Stuart’s unconventional but effective approach to preaching the Gospel. And Wahlberg brings his striking, memorable character vividly to life, skillfully portraying Stuart’s odd combination of crudity and idealism.
Grown viewers will easily get past the earthy language with which the script is filled to appreciate the picture’s faith-inspiring core. But the persistent vulgarity, while justified in context, may prove more problematic for younger movie fans who might otherwise benefit from this portrait of a vocation.
From Deacon Steven Greydanus in The Catholic World Report:
A dramatic failing of too many faith-based films is presenting conversion either as the climax or as the answer to all the protagonist’s troubles. Harry Cheney, who teaches at Chapman University’s Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, wrote nearly four decades ago in a Christianity Today film review of a Billy Graham production that “an encounter with Christ should propel the action, not end it.” Very few conversion-themed religious films made in the intervening years satisfy that maxim.
Father Stu is one of the few that does..
… Stuart’s spiritual trajectory remains moving, aided by committed performances from Wahlberg and Ruiz as well as a deeply vulnerable turn by Weaver. Wahlberg’s physical transformation from ripped boxer to puffy invalid is striking, but it’s the way he moderates his inner spark without extinguishing it that makes Father Stu the persuasively inspirational figure he finally is.
From Our Sunday Visitor:
It might be easy to believe that a movie named for and based upon the life of a Catholic priest that launches during Holy Week would be the typical sticky-sweet fodder that has given faith-based films a certain reputation. But filmgoers walking into “Father Stu” with preconceived notions of pompous piety will be in for an awakening. The film earns — and is more effective based on the pervasive foul language and grit — its rating for mature audiences.
… Rated R for language throughout, “Father Stu” contains graphic fighting scenes, an intense accident, and a hint at premarital relations. When it launches in theaters on April 13, the film will touch hearts and souls through its unflinching desire not to shy away from life’s toughest moments and to always seek God’s grace along the way.
From Religion Unplugged:
“Father Stu” nails the faith-based formula better than maybe any other faith-based film. But it remains to be seen if audiences will come out to see a faith-based film with so much cussing — or where the hero leaves the girl to pursue God…
…I hope that people who constantly say they want great faith-based movies will turn out for “Father Stu.” And I hope that Christians who normally would shy away from movies with rough dialogue will give it a chance. As someone who hungers for quality and authentic representations of faith onscreen that celebrate God rather than simply deconstruct him, I hope that this movie does well and inspires other moviegoers to follow in its footsteps.