If Benedict Cumberbatch or Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt had essayed this role Oscar voters would already be sharpening their pencils, especially as dramatic weight gain (Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull) seems to attract more sympathy than dramatic weight loss (Christian Bale, The Machinist). Although Mark Wahlberg (Uncharted, 2022) has a brace of Oscar nominations to his name, this movie seems to have struck out with most critics due to prejudice against organised religion. And that’s a shame because Wahlberg gives the performance of his career as a self-destructive boxer who finds redemption in becoming a rebel priest.
Atheist Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) is a whip-smart, charming, cocky loser. But when it comes to lifestyle choices he hasn’t the brains of a toad. Washed up as a boxer, he decides, as one does, that he has missed his vocation – he should be an actor. So off he hoofs to California, taking a job in a supermarket, on the basis (obviously) that one of the customers is bound to work in the movies and provide the lucky break. Instead, he falls for Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) only to discover she is an avowed Catholic, so serious about religion there would none of that sex-before-marriage nonsense.
So smitten is Stuart that he agrees to get baptised and then proving a holy hell of a parishioner questions priests about everything sacred, dropping F*** bombs left, right and center. But when he almost dies in a drunken accident, he decides to turn his life around the hard way and determines to become a priest. That’s another almighty battle in the acceptance stakes, and his take on religion is certainly not what the Catholic Church expected, but just when it looks as if he is going to achieve his ambition he is diagnosed with an incurable wasting disease.
Three hankies at the ready? No way. This is not one of the lovestruck teenager dying of cancer pictures, but a thoughtful and hilarious account of, effectively, stoicism. I knew nothing about the story on which this is based and half-expected either a miracle cure or that Carmen would announce herself pregnant, having done the whole sex-before-marriage thing, and scupper his chances of a life of chastity helping others.
Instead, Stuart is the kind of guy whose suffering infuses others with a dynamic to accept their own, often as miserable, life. And he’s so far from a saint that nobody could be lobbying the Pope on his behalf. I’ve no idea why this has been tagged “faith-based” which seems to spell box office doom especially Stateside. Anyone wanting to know what religion means to someone for whom religion means a lot would learn a huge amount from this picture. Stuart challenges everyone – and that includes the Almighty – but in a very real and often very funny way.
Yes, there is discussion of doctrine, but this part is fascinating, as Stuart pulls apart long-held tenets and tackles one of the apparent hallmarks of the faith in the U.S. – that no disabled person is allowed to stand on the altar. That he’s not the one who personally mounts a campaign to change this, since he’s so accepting of the will of God, and that it’s left to others, helps make this movie character-based rather than virtue-signalling.
This is best I have ever seen Wahlberg, not just because of how far he goes, body-wise, but because it is an incredibly assured performance, the fast-talking screen persona given the bullet, and in its place a realistic human being who begins to understand the benefits of humility over brashness. If it wasn’t for religion Stuart would have been one of life’s washed-up characters, ending up like his father Bill (Mel Gibson) at the bottom of a bottle.
Mel Gibson, now firmly in the Nicolas-Cage-straight-to-dvd league, turns in a superb performance as the bitter father and the Oscar-nominated Jackie Weaver (The Silver Linings Playbook, 2012) is excellent as the buttoned-down lost mother. Teresa Ruiz (The Marksman, 2021) is every bit as good. Cody Fern (Eden television series, 2021) as a buttoned-up priest who doubts his faith is one to watch and you might spot, under all his priestly garb and smug expression, Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, 1971).
Given the emphasis on equality I’m surprised writer-director Rosalind Ross has not received more acclaim, if any at all from what I can gather, for what is a very assured debut. And I can only hope this is not because she committed the terrible sin, apparently, of attempting to make a sincere picture about the effect of religion on peoples’ lives. In Hollywood’s Golden Era all sorts of unlikely priests, step up Bing Crosby et al, and stars like Gary Cooper (The Pride of the Yankees, 1942) died of incurable diseases and the crowds would line up, but somehow this kind of storyline has become a box office affliction rather than carrying a banner for the kind of character-based straightforward story audiences used to love.