‘Father Stu’ Review: Screwball Salvation

Mark Wahlberg dials himself up to 11 in “Father Stu,” a never-say-die story of religious redemption and all-American hustle. Wahlberg’s career is full of characters who totally believe in their own game, and here, he throws himself into the oddball role of Stuart Long — a Montana boxer turned beloved priest who developed a degenerative muscle disease and died at 50.

Three movies’ worth of underdog hooks fuel Wahlberg as the story winds him up and watches him go. Stu boxes until his jaw cries uncle; heads to Hollywood to be a star; converts to Catholicism to woo a devout woman (Teresa Ruiz as Carmen); nearly dies in a projectile motorcycle crash; and enters the seminary to become a priest. As if that wasn’t enough drama, Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver play his trash-talking, separated parents.

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.

Father Stu

Rated R for salty irreverence throughout. Running time: 2 hour 4 minutes. In theaters.

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