Mark Wahlberg turned 50 last year. That’s a tricky age for an action star. There’s only so much that regular visits to the weight room or recourse to plastic surgery can do. Wahlberg’s clearly kept up his gym membership, even if he did put on 30 pounds for some scenes in “Father Stu.”
The movie opens in theaters Wednesday.
Wahlberg’s long been alert to not being typecast. It’s not every career that can find room for both “Boogie Nights” (1997) and the two “Ted” movies (2012, 2015). Along the way, he’s worked not only with Paul Thomas Anderson but also Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Tim Burton, Ridley Scott, James Gray (twice), and David O. Russell (three times). A good indicator of an actor’s ambition, seriousness, or both is the caliber of directors he’s worked for.
All of which is to say that while it may seem easy to pigeonhole Wahlberg, that would be a mistake. Clear proof came last summer, with “Joe Bell,” in which Wahlberg played the crusading father of a bullied gay teen. It was not a typical Mark Wahlberg role, but that made his taking it on all the more notable, even if the movie wasn’t all that good.
Clearer proof comes with “Father Stu.” A Wahlberg passion project (he produced as well as stars), the movie begins with a preamble. The actor directly addresses the audience as himself. He talks about Stuart Long, the real-life character he plays, and how much Long’s story means to him.
Stu is both a typical Wahlberg role — and very much not. He starts out a lewd, crude, and rude, former boxer from Montana. He’s also pretty clueless. Going to LA to make it as an actor, Stu may remind you of an even poorer man’s Dirk Diggler.
Yet Stu is not-typical Wahlberg even more than Joe Bell. The character has a double conversion experience. The first one isn’t so much a conversion as a dating ploy (OK, that’s still typical). He falls very hard for a devout Catholic, Carmen (Teresa Ruiz, who does what she can with a thankless role). But then Stu has a vision of the Virgin Mary and enters the seminary, with results both predictable and anything but.
The fact that Stu was a real person gives the movie considerable leeway, plausibility-wise. But an awful lot of squaring of the circle needs doing here. In some ways, Wahlberg has a harder time with bad-boy Stu. It’s not just that he’s too old for the part. More than that, he doesn’t manage to make Stu in any way appealing. A loudmouth without loudmouth charm is just a loudmouth. It’s hard to imagine what Carmen sees in him. Ultimately, “Father Stu” is a movie about faith, but some kinds of faith have limits.
So does casting. Wahlberg as a seminarian is one kind of stretch. Mel Gibson, as Stu’s father, is another, and Malcolm McDowell, as a monsignor, makes three. Oddly enough, the great Jacki Weaver, who seems like natural casting as Stu’s mother, is just wasted.
In fairness, Gibson is very good. The way he torched his career makes it easy to forget what real star power he once had. Even playing quite a nasty character — you sure can see where Stu’s failings come from — Gibson has terrific presence. Presumably, it helps that his longtime companion, Rosalind Ross, wrote and directed.
Beside Gibson, the best thing about “Father Stu” is how it’s consistently sincere without ever descending — ascending? — into piety. The movie is meant to be inspirational and has an obvious appeal to church groups and audiences not usually found at the multiplex. But Stu’s dividedness will pose a real problem for many viewers. This was one seriously foul-mouthed dude. Even in the seminary, he has a hard time minding his thee’s and thou’s. Part of the movie’s sincerity is its not shrinking from that side of Stu. This is a deserved R rating. A lot of ears are going to turn redder than a cardinal’s hat.
Written and directed by Rosalind Ross. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, Malcolm McDowell. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 124 minutes. R (language throughout).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.