Chasing Mavericks is the real-life story of Jay Moriarty (Jonny Weston), a surfing prodigy from Santa Cruz who made waves (ahem) in 1994 when, at the age of 16, he seemingly came out of nowhere to surf the legendary Mavericks, a particularly dangerous Northern Pacific break known for massive crests of up to 80 feet. The film informs us that Moriarty didn’t actually appear out of thin air: Instead, he was coached, with Mr. Miyagi–like steeliness, by “Frosty” Hesson (Gerard Butler), a gruff, demanding older surfer and neighbor who taught the boy all about stamina, observation, and mental discipline. In turn, Jay taught the embittered, disillusioned Frosty about perseverance and family. It’s a perfect fortune cookie of a movie, full of bland life lessons for everybody; would that there were some drama or style in it somewhere along the way.
Amazingly, the stiff, barely functional direction here comes courtesy of Curtis Hanson (L.A Confidential, Wonder Boys) and Michael Apted (Thunderheart, Coal Miner’s Daughter), two veteran, Oscar-nominated filmmakers who regularly do fine work. But they thrive in the realm of the literal: Both directors tend to be good with dialogue and sharply drawn characters, and what Chasing Mavericks needs, and lacks, is poetry. “We all come from the sea. But we are not of the sea. Those of us who are, we children of the tides, must return to it again and again,” Butler’s voice-over intones at the beginning, suggesting that we’re about to get a film about the relentless, haunting fascination of the sea — the way its mystery can intrude on our little lives. What we get instead are mostly characters going through telegraphed journeys.
Even so, there are occasional glimpses here of the film that might have been. Early on, Frosty stands outside his home at night and, seeing his wife dealing with their newborn, walks away and avoids them; meanwhile, Jay comes home to find that his dad has left and his mom is lying in bed, a bottle by her side. (Mom is played by Elisabeth Shue, who is wasted by this film in more ways than one.) The building blocks are generic, but the juxtaposition of them clever: The older man fears responsibility and a stable family life, while the young boy wishes he could have one. They will eventually become, we realize, father figures for one another. But the script (by Kario Salem) doesn’t quite follow through on that setup, relying instead on boilerplate plot points. Jay lives through his side of a half-baked love triangle, deals with the usual bullies, and tut-tuts at his best friend’s drug habit.
At the very least, you would think that the film would find a way to contrast the petty agony of this life with the elemental wonder of the waves. After all, the sea has always had a pull on certain filmmakers’ imaginations: Luc Besson’s free-diving epic The Big Blue gave its characters’ deadly obsession with the deep a sensuous, seductive quality, while John Milius’s Big Wednesday turned surfing into a search for a Zen constant in a world gone haywire. Meanwhile, Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break and John Stockwell’s Blue Crush used the freewheeling, amped-up energy of the surfing subculture to fuel their respective story lines. But Chasing Mavericks rarely integrates its mundane reality with transcendental awe. The imagery by veteran cinematographer Bill Pope is often picturesque, but rarely suspenseful (though we do get some terrific stunts during a climactic wave-riding sequence).
The acting doesn’t help much, either. Butler is good at glaring, but when he speaks, he sounds like a caricature of a grizzled hard-ass. And with his all-American blandness, Weston (who looks like the secret love child of Kirk Cameron and The Blue Lagoon’s Christopher Atkins) has the opposite problem: He’s earnest but stiff. With all due respect to the memory of the real Jay Moriarty (who died tragically at the age of 21), this film’s version of him could just as easily be a promising basketball player or a spelling-bee champ. He’s merely an off-the-rack movie teen with a big, prefab dream.