Chasing Mavericks (United States, 2012)

October 26, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Chasing Mavericks Poster

Chasing Mavericks feels like two completely different movies that have been mashed together. The first, a derivative and unsatisfying coming-of-age story about a Santa Cruz boy and his adopted father figure, seems uncharacteristically weak for the likes of co-directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted. The second, a rousing documentary about surfing maverick waves, is awe-inspiring and almost worth the price of admission. The problem is, to get to the surfing footage, it's necessary to navigate the undertow of bad acting, laughable dialogue, and predictable narrative. The story has also been whitewashed to make it appropriate for family audiences. Teenagers in the world of Chasing Mavericks lack hormones.

Chasing Mavericks is "based on a true story," which in this case means some of what we see on screen kind-of sort-of happened during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The lead character, Jay Moriarty (Jonny Weston), was a real person who rose to prominence in the surfing world when he was in mid mid-teens. (He subsequently died at age 22 in a free-diving accident.) Chasing Mavericks purports to tell of his interest in surfing mavericks and how, with the aid of his Mr. Miyagi-inspired mentor, Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), he achieved that goal. The story, which has been manipulated in a way that would make Disney blush, gives us a best friend (Blond, played by Devin Crittenden), an alcoholic mother (Kristy, played by Elisabeth Shue), a girlfriend (Kim, played by Leven Rambin), and a rival (Sonny, played by Taylor Handley). The elements are all in place for the movie to travel the formulaic path to the grand finale. One can't help but wish the filmmakers had opted to spend a lot more time in the water because, when it's on land, Chasing Mavericks is all wet.

Originally, this was not intended to be a collaborative effort but, when Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile) fell ill midway through the shoot, a substitute was needed. Michael Apted stepped into the breach; despite being best known for his long-running Up documentary series, Apted is no stranger to feature films, having once helmed a Bond movie (The World is not Enough) and, more recently, the Narnia entry The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Perhaps the change in director is an explanation for why Chasing Mavericks is so distressingly generic, but it's probably more the fault of Kario Salem's screenplay, which tosses too many thinly-developed characters and subplots at the viewer in the vague hope that something will stick.

The lead character is played by relative newcomer Jonny Weston, who was apparently selected because of his physical resemblance to the real Jay Moriarty. The producers have also stated they wanted someone not immediately recognizable. Weston's physicality is without question and his acting ability is adequate. The film's biggest "name" actor, Gerard Butler, is miscast, but that could be because we have become so used to him playing tough guys that it's hard to accept him in the role of an overage surfer dude. Keanu Reeves might have been a better choice. Chasing Mavericks' other recognizable face, Elisabeth Shue, is shoehorned into the obligatory "absent mom" role. She's an alcoholic loser who is in a reverse-relationship with Jay: he fills the "parent" role and she's the "child." This could have been an interesting dynamic if it wasn't presented in such a perfunctory manner. That comment is largely true of every interpersonal relationship with the exception of the one between Frosty and Jay, which forms the film's emotional backbone.

In the admittedly small subgenre of surfing movies, recognition starts (and perhaps ends) with Point Break. Although not a titan of drama or adventure, that movie spins a more compelling tale than the one on offering in Chasing Mavericks, but the surfing sequences are more impressive here. Credit goes to everyone involved - the scenes with characters challenging the maverick waves are amazing. I have no idea how much of a mix of trick camera work, stunt surfers, and CGI was employed but the illusion is effective.

For Hanson and Apted, this is a rather inconsequential effort. Its themes of perseverance and facing one's inner fear will likely win it some adherents, even though those are developed in ways that are more straightforward and less compelling than one might expect. The reason to see Chasing Mavericks is the same reason why people flock to shore locations when a hurricane approaches: the waves. This is less effective as a bio-pic of Jay Moriarty than it is as a big screen National Geographic Special.

Chasing Mavericks (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2012-10-26
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1