‘Father Stu’: Warmhearted priest biopic stars two men who know about seeking redemption

Mark Wahlberg convincingly plays out the hero’s arc of screwing up, taking ill, finding faith and reconciling with his father (Mel Gibson).

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Until he gets sick, Stu (Mark Wahlberg, left) is estranged from his hard-drinking father (Mel Gibson) in “Father Stu.”

Columbia Pictures

Our guiding philosophy when reviewing movies over the years is usually to focus on the work and not the personal lives of those who make the art — but in the case of the inspirational biopic “Father Stu,” it’s impossible to ignore that it’s Mark Wahlberg playing the title character and Mel Gibson as his father. Each man has a violent, racist, troubling past — in Wahlberg’s case before he became famous, with Gibson’s ugly episodes transpiring after he had reached global superstardom — and both men have been vocal about their respective faiths, and now they’re in a film that’s all about redemption.

Wahlberg has called this a passion project and the casting of Gibson certainly doesn’t seem coincidental, especially given the fact “Father Stu” is directed by Gibson’s romantic partner Rosalind Ross (who does fine work here). Wahlberg’s Stuart Long is a booze-soaked, club-level fighter, womanizer and lifelong screw-up who decides he’ll become a priest relatively late in life, and Gibson’s Bill Long is a hard-drinking, verbally abusive, all-around S.O.B. who has been estranged from his son for years but just might find some reconciliation when Stu needs him most.

Once the movie begins, it’s easy to set aside what we know about Wahlberg and Gibson and what we might surmise their motivations are for doing this project, and settle in for a warmhearted, sincere, faith-based work with strong performances by the two leads as well as Jacki Weaver as Stu’s hard-boiled but loving mother and Teresa Ruiz as the beautiful and caring Sunday school teacher who captures Stu’s attention and is the conduit to his spiritual awakening.

‘Father Stu’

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Columbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Rosalind Ross. Rated R (for language throughout). Running time: 124 minutes. Opens Tuesday at local theaters.

Wahlberg’s Stu is a ham-and-egger in his late 30s who has endured and doled out brutal beatings for years without making any real money, and after a doctor tells him it’s long past time to hang up the gloves, Stu makes the rash and quite ridiculous decision to drive West to Hollywood to become an actor. That leads to him working the meat counter at a grocery store and getting into minor legal scrapes and basically sleepwalking through life, until the day when Ruiz’s Carmen enters the grocery store, posting a pamphlet about a church event, and Stu tracks her down at the church and tries to win her heart.

At first, Stu’s attendance at Mass and Carmen’s Sunday school classes, and his proclamations of accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, are just fraudulent gamesmanship in the name of courting Carmen. Things change, though, when Stu is involved in a horrific motorcycle crash and nearly dies, after which he truly commits himself to God and announces his intentions to become a priest — but before Stu can be ordained, he is diagnosed with a rare condition known as inclusion body myositis, and he begins to lose control over his body to the point where he is in a wheelchair and cannot perform the simplest tasks without assistance.

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Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) catches Stu’s eye and becomes his Sunday school teacher.

Columbia Pictures

Stu’s father Bill, who initially mocked Stu’s intentions to become a priest, has a revelation of his own when he sees his son wasting away before him. After a life of not being there for his boy, of downgrading him or flat-out ignoring him, Bill has the chance to do the right thing.

Wahlberg, who reportedly gained some 30 pounds to reflect the changes in Stu’s physique after his diagnosis, does a remarkably good job of capturing the transformation in Stu’s condition as he convincingly plays a man who once was a physical force but was all slick and empty charm until he turned himself over to his faith and spent his last years counseling his fellow human beings, even as his condition worsened. Weaver and Gibson are touching in their scenes together, playing two rough-hewn people who went their separate ways years ago but now find solace with one another through their love of their son. Teresa Ruiz adds depth to what could have been a walking Holy Card of a role.

“Father Stu” breaks no new ground in the biopic game, but it’s a solid and worthy tribute to the real-life Father Stu, who continued to do the Lord’s work until his death in 2014 at the age of 50.

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