Film Review: Chasing Mavericks

The characters here are swamped not only in huge surf, but in the unmitigated corn of a hopelessly mawkish screenplay.

Chasing Mavericks is the story of Jay Moriarty (Jonny Weston), the champion surfer who conquered the most massive waves and died at sea at the age of 22. Directors Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson focus on him at 16, when he first undertook to attempt the giant surf called Mavericks Break, in Santa Cruz, Calif. For instruction, he goes to crusty board veteran Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), who, reluctant at first, takes the kid under his wing and teaches him the lessons of the ocean, as well as, yes, life itself.

Halfway through the film, I turned to my date and asked, “What year was this made?” The plotting, characterizations and dialogue by Kario Salem all smack so strongly of formulaic Old Hollywood sentimentality that it’s like watching something like (the actually far better-crafted) Captains Courageous suddenly plunked down in Surferville. The filmmakers have made Moriarty the most idealistically wholesome, all-American kid since Mickey Rooney found his first freckle. Weston has the WASP-y good looks favored by the relentlessly white-centric world of Abercrombie & Fitch, and manages to be appealing through all the dewy-eyed corn. His character must contend with a heartbreakingly absentee dad and an unreliable mother (Elizabeth Shue, utterly wasted) who borrows money from him, so it’s small wonder that the ocean beckons.

The movie starts with Jay as a child, falling in love with his eventual wife, Kim (who grows into Leven Rambin, looking at least ten years older than Weston), at—where else?—the beach. They’re more star-crossed than Romeo and his squeeze, and in this nothing-really-changes fantasy world, Jay also has a lifelong enemy in a thuggish kid who threatens him with a baseball bat. When the film flash-forwards several years to Jay’s adolescence and we see that same punk, still being a menace with that same bat, there are giggles in the audience.
Butler remains the movies’ quintessential Hollow Man, a second-rate Russell Crowe, all grizzled macho and little beneath the surface. Here, he’s an Occidental Mr. Miyagi, doling out shaky aphorisms like “Fear is healthy, panic is lethal,” and tiresomely making poor Jay write lengthy essays about the philosophy of surfing. That name, “Frosty,” however true to life it may be in terms of Moriarty’s biographical surf guru, is nonetheless dramatically disastrous at certain ultra-fraught moments. “Paddle, Frosty!” seems risible enough, but when Abigail Spencer, thanklessly playing his wife, whines, “For goodness’ sake, Frosty, not everyone sees the world through your eyes!” you just have to give up and laugh.
Spencer is but one of the three lead actresses saddled with non-surfing, bleakly subsidiary roles, proving once again that nothing changes in La-La-land. Don’t screenwriters ever blanch, writing yet another of those “Don’t go out to the [war, bullring, airplane, dangerous beach] today, dear” roles for unlucky actresses in need of work? The true stars of the film are the waves themselves, awesome liquid mountains that rear up magnificently and resoundingly crash, thrillingly recorded by the sensational cinematography of Oliver Euclid and Bill Pope.