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Review: Winning 'Father Stu' carried by Wahlberg, but stolen by Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver

Mark Wahlberg does a lot of heavy lifting in this winning biopic, but it's his co-stars who steal the show as Stuart Long's embattled parents.
Credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

If the ability to change midlife needed a poster child, Stuart Long would be near the top of the list.

A boxer with parents who didn't exactly share religious beliefs and a professional career that brought more damage than reward, he overcame an extreme amount of hardships in his attempt to become a priest. Through that often tumultuous journey, he managed to help thousands of people reform their lives. If that doesn't get your attention and restore your faith in humanity, little will.

But does the Mark Wahlberg-starring "Father Stu" do justice to that true story? Yes it does, in a non-flashy style that is carried by something often lost in biopics: a strong sense of humor. While being imperfect and flawed in certain ways, it's a winning film that does more right than wrong.

The real wisdom in director Rosalind Ross' script is the thoughtful approach the movie takes in bridging the gap between the believers and non-believers. In order to pull in a respectable and worthy audience and properly tell Long's story, "Father Stu" couldn't be overwhelming with the holier aspects or completely abandon the crowd it's speaking to. Long's ingenious ability was using his more rugged years as testimony for the growth he showed late in life. That was what pulled in a room full of inmates or a church half-full of doubters. Unlike most priests and ordained ministers, he didn't want to do this from birth and that made him a unique soul that others were drawn to.

Stuart went through lots of battles, mostly of the medical variety. Likely due to his fighting days, he suffered from a degenerative muscle condition that came on suddenly at an uncommonly young age. Wahlberg runs the gauntlet in cinematic looks here, blending "Boogie Nights" with "The Fighter" for the early life and times of Stu, before prosthetics plays a big part in his performance. It's a busy performance that the actor creates a winning performance with, even if some of the makeup and emotions don't always come off as wholly convincing.

Unrecognizable can have good and bad results. Like the character's own path, Wahlberg's performance is very good in the beginning, stumbles, and then finishes strong. Only a scene in a church during confession does the blend of actor and makeup become too much.

It's Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver though, playing Stuart's estranged yet caring parents, who steal the show here. This is the best Gibson has been in years, and that's because he's not playing an angel. Let's face it. We like our Gibby with a slice of crazy and some vitriol, at least on screen. Martin Riggs, William Wallace, and several other of his characters had a wild free spirit running throughout them that almost seemed human. The Long family patriarch would get along with that group of fellas. As the tough yet quietly tender Bill Long, a guy who laughed when he heard his son's newfound goal, the actor is exactly what the role requires and more.

Few should look to the movies and its characters as moral high ground pillars, but Gibson gets the best laughs and lines here. He delivers a ruggedly soulful performance that is very affecting.

Weaver can play a worrying matriarch extremely well-see "Silver Linings Playbook"-but she adds an extra electric spice to Stu's indelible mother. There's a candid collection of compliments and cut-down jokes that are shared in the Long family, and Weaver gets a lot of them. She steals scenes with Wahlberg and Gibson or both in the shot, and it never looks like work. It's natural, which is what every filmmaker craves. She can give her son brutally honest advice and get our laughing approval, and then enjoy a sweet slow dance with Gibson--like a lioness taming the untamable lion. They create some magic on screen.

When the film is forced to stick to its heavy treaded biopic formula, "Father Stu" loses some of that magic. Wahlberg attempts to power lift the film in certain scenes; he's much better off trading shots with his co-leads or serving up an unlikely sermon to prisoners. That late scene is easily his best in the film. It's not an award-worthy performance and there's some initial pause in the Stuart Long physical transformation but like the title character, the actor wins you over by the end.

The real MVP of "Father Stu" is the humor Ross finds in a bittersweet story. It's the film's most natural gift and one that keeps on giving until the end. Proof that every tall (and true) tale needs a few good laughs to balance out the more weightier aspects of its scope. I think if the real Stuart Long could see this movie, he would approve.

That's all that really matters.

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