Yet another surfing film in which the waves swallow the story, Chasing Mavericks is a cinematic wipe out. Given that the movie is credited to two celebrated directors (Curtis Hanson of L.A. Confidential; Michael Apted of Coal Miner’s Daughter), we can imagine them politely trying pass the buck:
- “Wouldn’t you like to work on this next scene? No one knows the subtlety of the surfboard like you.”
- “Oh, no, you’ve got a much finer sense of the wet suit.”
- “No, seriously, I wouldn’t presume. I know it’s your turn.”
Back and forth, ebb and flow. It appears that ultimately no one showed up.
As for Kario Salem’s script, a mangled version of an old English proverb comes to mind: You can lead a scribe to water, but you can’t make him think. Buoyant as an anchor, the film’s scenes float toward us without shape or urgency. Friends go for a dive in a pool, zoom around on skateboards, and work at a local pizzeria. Possible conflicts arise but are never pursued, e.g., menacing bullies, a friend who may be dealing pot, a mom who may be slightly alcoholic, a father who may or may not have had a reason for abandoning his family.
But like the biggest wave ever surfed, a 78-footer crashing to a Portuguese shore in 2011 … I’m getting ahead of myself.
Loosely based on the life of Jay Moriarty – who perished in a free diving accident in 2001, a day before his 23rd birthday — the film opens on a wide-eyed 8-year-old, mesmerized by the waves that hold sway over his central California home of Santa Cruz. He attempts to befriend his local surf king neighbor, the chilly, appropriately-named Frosty (Gerard Butler), and eventually succeeds. His persistence pays off in another area as well, as the teenage Jay (played by newcomer Jonny Weston) talks Frosty into training him to prepare for riding the waves of his life, at nearby Half Moon Bay, in a mythic surf spot called Mavericks. Though treated somewhat vaguely in the film, the actual fact was that in December of 1994, during a massive El Niño climate, the 16-year-old managed to get up on his board. The moment was memorialized by a photographer, and Jay found himself awash in oceanic iconography when he made the cover of the renowned Surfer Magazine.
This Rocky-in-a-wet-suit story is mingled with clumsy subplots of a faux father-son relationship, Jay as an outcast high schooler, and his doe-eyed desire to win over his childhood friend Kim (Leven Rambin). But the scenes are so undeveloped, the characters so flat, that this paean to Endless Summer is about as endless as it gets.
Lead actor Gerard Butler, also an executive producer, seems to be on cruise control, with his long, damp, sun-bleached surfer hair standing in as peroxided proxy for a character. He states that he did in fact pull off some of his own surfing … until the insurance underwriters pulled him out of the water, substituting stunt doubles instead. As Jay’s beleaguered mother, Elisabeth Shue lends her talents to a mere handful of lines, similar to her minor bartender role in last summer’s Hope Springs. Between these two films and the critically hammered House at the End of the Street, is it possible that Shue’s just working to meet her Screen Actors Guild health plan eligibility?
However, the film suffers most from the casting of new actor Jonny Weston. He’s an appealing fellow with a sweet smile, but he’s woefully out of his depth. Perhaps directors Hanson or Apted might have helped a drowning kid out? Thrown him a rope? Considered CPR? It’s mean … drama-mean.
As one might assume, the surf cinematography is superb. And the production design of the small, sea-worn Santa Cruz residences is dead on. But as a nod to the young Jay Moriarty who refused to accept his limitations, who unfailingly celebrated his love for the sea and his life, Chasing Mavericks falls far short of a proper homage. Rather than “Live Like Jay” (Santa Cruz’ ever-present bumper sticker to its beloved surfing champ), this film comes far closer to the opposite … a burial at sea.
Rating on a scale of 5 beached tales: 1.5
Release date: October 26, 2012
Directed by: Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted
Screenplay by: Kario Salem
Cast: Gerard Butler, Jonny Weston, Elisabeth Shue, Abigail Spencer, Leven Rambin
Running Time: 116 minutes