Mark Wahlberg's Father Stu is the No. 1 Netflix movie — but should you watch?

Mark Wahlberg as Stuart Long in Father Stu
(Image credit: Sony Pictures)

The top Netflix movies can sometimes surprise — and Mark Wahlberg's done just that. His 2022 drama Father Stu, which was released in theaters in April and on video-on-demand in May, has finally gone from a sleeper to a minor success, taking the No. 1 Movie spot on Netflix for a second day in a row. Oh, and it's also based on a true life story.

And it's been something of a covert release at that, as the film didn't appear on any of Netflix's monthly release schedules this year. Netflix Live notes the film has been available since Sept. 16, 2022, but even they don't have a release date (FlixPatrol's numbers show it started charting in the U.S. on the 18th, at No. 3). 

Father Stu took the U.S. movies top spot after a slow weekend, as apocalyptic comedy This Is The End had it on Saturday and the new Netflix release Do Revenge (a Hitchcockian modernization) had it on Sunday.

All that said, Father Stu pulling this off is definitely a surprise, as little marketing has been there to propel it up to the top of the chart. It's not a hit with critics, either (though the most popular Netflix movies rarely are). So, let's break down what Father Stu is, and if you should watch it tonight.

What is Father Stu?

Mark Wahlberg as a priest is the kind of concept that will make many (as we can tell) curious. Here, he plays Stuart "Stu" Long, whose mother is also shocked at this career change. Up until now, Stu's failed through every profession in the books, including deli clerk, boxer and actor. The real Stuart Long, we should note, won the Golden Gloves heavyweight title in the state of Montana in 1985.

Stu's also tried working for his estranged father Bill (Mel Gibson). That didn't work out, either. Stu comes to the cloth, though, by way of a woman he meets named Carmen (Teresa Ruiz). While Stu fancies her, she won't date anyone who hasn't been baptized as a fellow Catholic. Once Stu starts going to church, things get better for him, as he starts making other friends there, and he even gets booked for an infomercial.

Then, things get very chaotic. Stu and Carmen don't work out, he applies to the seminary and then gets into a terrible accident. That accident may have been prevented, had he listened to advice from a mysterious stranger.

After experiencing visions, Stu is given a grim diagnosis. The doctors say he has  a rare condition known as inclusion body myositis, which is similar to Lou Gehrig's disease. I would explain more, but I'd rather not spoil too much.

Father Stu reviews: What critics say

Rotten Tomatoes gives you a fed flag for Father Stu: a critics score of 43% with that green splat logo. But since movies can't be distilled into numbers, lets see what the critics actually said.

In a two (out of five) star review for Empire, John Nugent expresses a lot of frustration, writing that "first-time writer-director Rosalind Ross seems to opt for just empty proselytising, veering into Lifetime-levels of cheese," and that "The film seems confused by its priorities: is it a biopic, or religious propaganda?" Nugent also notes that "Mel Gibson, cast here as an unpleasant alcoholic who barks slurs from his pick-up truck, is a wild misfire, and feels uncomfortably close to the tabloid headlines of reality."

Mark Wahlberg as Stuart Long, in a church, in Father Stu

(Image credit: Sony Pictures)

Whelan Barzey at Time Out declares that Father Stu is "Well-intentioned but ultimately mishandled, it commits the cardinal sin of indecisiveness, middling out in a purgatory of daddy issues and Sunday service pamphlets."

But how did the religious world take Father Stu? Steven D. Greydanus of The Catholic  World Report writes that "Stuart’s spiritual trajectory remains moving, aided by committed performances from Wahlberg and Ruiz as well as a deeply vulnerable turn by Weaver. Wahlberg’s physical transformation from ripped boxer to puffy invalid is striking, but it’s the way he moderates his inner spark without extinguishing it that makes Father Stu the persuasively inspirational figure he finally is." 

That said, even that critic found flaws, writing "The film doesn’t really reckon with Stuart’s insensitivity to Carmen, who is expected to forgive but is never offered an apology." He also notes he "could have done without the priggish, prissy seminarian (a character type often described as queer-coded) who is antagonistic toward Stuart and is ultimately revealed not to have a true vocation."

Outlook: Should you watch Father Stu tonight?

Mark Wahlberg as Stuart Long in Father Stu

(Image credit: Sony Pictures)

If you want a motivational film that has some of Wahlberg's signature ribald humor but is rooted in Catholicism, you will probably want to give Father Stu a try. Your ability to watch Mel Gibson on screen will also be a factor in how long you give Father Stu a chance. 

Nobody's positioned Father Stu as a grand piece of cinema, but it may fit your wants and needs for the evening. As always, answering the question of what to watch is all about your expectations. 

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.