Featuring the combined efforts of directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted, as well as ginormous, gnarly waves, and all the gruff, non-threatening charm that Gerard Butler can muster, Chasing Mavericks is a good-faith effort to dramatize 12 weeks in the life of an apparently flawless young surfer.
Based on a true story, it's clearly intended to be inspirational, following along as teenaged Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston) faces one challenge after another, always with a smile on his face and a positive outlook on life. His father walked out on him and his mother Kristy (Elisabeth Shue) when Jay was a boy, around the same time that he was rescued by legendary surfer Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler). Fortuituously, Jay wants to be a surfer, and Frosty lives across the street in the coastal town of Santa Cruz, California, and so an unofficial father/son bond is formed, at least in Jay's eyes.
The film begins with the ocean rescue, staying with the time period long enough to establish the key players, before jumping forward seven years. Jay is now a surfer with exceptional skills; he is now best friends with Blond (Devin Crittenden), the kid who gave him his first surfing lesson; he still pines for the lovely Kim (Leven Rambin); he still gets bullied by the jealous Sonny (Taylor Handley); his mother is still troubled; and good neighbor Frosty still gruffly keeps him at arm's length.
One night, Jay discovers Frosty's big secret: the existence of the legendary Mavericks, giant waves so high and huge that only a few surfers in the world can ride them and live to tell the tale. Jay immediately sets his heart on surfing the Mavericks, but Frosty sternly rebuffs his entreaties, until Frosty's warm-hearted, lovingly supportive wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer) finally breaks it down for her husband.
Brenda explains to Frosty that, like it or not, Jay looks up to him as a father figure. Despite being a father of two, Frosty is still coming to terms with the responsibilities of parenthood, due to lingering issues from his own childhood. Thanks to kindly nudging from Brenda, however, Frosty realizes he needs to take a more active role, both with his own children and with Jay.
Thus begins Jay's season of intense education. Weather conditions for the giants waves mean that Jay only has 12 weeks to meet Frosty's four basic requirements to surf the Mavericks, so the kid must buckle down and develop the physical strength, mental agility, emotional stability, and spiritual aptitude to tackle the greatest challenge of his young life.
Even without any pre-awareness of the real-life Jay Moriarity, the story will feel incredibly familiar. Kario Salem's screenplay, with a story credited to Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper, quickly falls into the well-worn "inspirational sports story" sub-genre rut, presenting a series of challenges that our hero must overcome with great humanity and humility, and always with a grace that belies his tender years. The ending is hardly in question.
The giant waves are, indeed, astonishing to contemplate, as they have been in countless movies for the past few decades, but they are not inherently compelling to watch in a narrative sense. The characterizations and storytelling, then, become the focus, and directors Hanson and Apted fall short in bringing anything fresh to their stylistic approach; neither are they able to draw out performances that suggest much depth. (Hanson, it should be noted, began the project and completed much of the principal photography before complications from heart surgery sidelined him, at which point Apted came on board and finished the final 15 days or so of production.) Considering Hanson's record of flushing out fascinating angles on familiar subjects, this is especially disappointing.
Butler is gruff enough and sufficiently charming to fulfill the requirements of his role, but he has no one to play against: both his wife Brenda and protege Jay are saintly creatures, which surely made them pleasant companions in real life, but, again, of limited interest in a dramatic feature, even in an inspirational drama. One suspects that Jay's mother is hiding some emotional baggage that needs to be unpacked, but the film is reluctant to explore their relationship, beyond suggesting that Jay has become more of a parent than his mother.
The core "problem" may simply be Jay himself, or, rather, the manner in which the filmmakers portray the legend. He is treated with such reverence and awe that he comes across as too perfect; it's easier to sympathize with his longtime friend Blond and semi-nemesis Sonny, imperfect beasts who both resent his superiority.
Jay can't help being superior, but Chasing Mavericks kept reminding me of a brief moment in James L. Brooks' Broadcast News, in which shallow yet highly successful William Hurt asks, "What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?" Highly talented yet much less successful Albert Brooks replies, "Keep it to yourself."
In the film, Jay Moriarity's extraordinary real life exceeds his modest dreams. But it may be that his legend might have been better served with a documentary, in which other people could testify as to how he inspired them, instead of a tepidly-dramatized feature that keeps nudging us to say, "Isn't he great?"
Chasing Mavericks opens wide theatrically in the U.S. and Canada on Friday, October 26.