“Chasing Mavericks” is a true story where you really want to root for the surfer kid who wants so badly to catch that one, big, giant, “maverick” wave. But the stilted production gets in the way.
Jonny Weston plays Jay Moriarty, and though he’s had a little acting experience, he’s a much better surfer than actor. And will somebody please tell makeup that they’re putting it on too thick?
Gerard Butler, playing the mentor Frosty Hesson, obviously has the requisite acting experience, and he can sit on his thick Scottish brogue sufficiently to play the aging Californian surfer dude, but somehow when he tries to act like a gruff curmudgeon it just comes across as a mean-spirited jerk, except in one of the last scenes, where he gets uncharacteristically misty-eyed, which presumably makes up for all his previous prickliness.
Abigail Spencer, playing Butler’s wife, is actually 12 years younger but looks about 25 years younger, and they never really explain how she has a teenager and a baby at the same time. She’s the mature one with the calming influence and helpful relational advice, but she also seems to enable her husband/boyfriend (we’re never sure which) to be an aging hippie beach bum. And she seems the least likely to have the sudden health issues, the inclusion of which seems unnecessarily maudlin.
They try, gamely, to set up Jay Moriarty as a really nice boy with a terrible home life: his mom (played by Elisabeth Shue) begins as a dissolute drunk, but by the end has somehow straightened herself out, without help from anyone, which seems unlikely. Jay’s best friend at school seems to be running with the wrong crowd, but by the end has become an unabashed fan of Jay’s quixotic quest to be a local surfing legend. Even the school bully (Taylor Handley, who is 28 and a decade too old for this role) comes around to root for Jay, along with the stuck-up high school beauty (played by Leven Rambin) who suddenly professes her undying love for him, on the eve of his big adventure.
Yes, El Nino has produced the possibility of 30-foot waves, and if you fall and hit the water, says Frosty, it’s like hitting concrete at 50 miles per hour. Plus, the undertow can keep you submerged for up to four minutes, and the strong current can pull you into the rocks. But Jay Moriarty is determined, and he practices holding his breath during class so that he suddenly passes out and crumples to the floor. He works at the local pizza place and saves money for his special equipment. And he practices “becoming one” with the ocean, which the “real” Jay Moriarty apparently did a little too much of seven years later, but we don’t find that out until the credits.
We all know how this movie is going to end: Jay Moriarty conquers the big beast of the giant wave, and becomes an instant celebrity in the surfer culture, because apparently there were enough people around to witness it and photograph it. So, by some magic combination of skill, luck, courage and recklessness, we now know his name. But this film is an awkward fame vehicle, even after the fact. It’s a shame they had to switch directors in the middle of filming, because it feels contrived and cloying and formulaic, not to belabor predictable.
And at the end you have to ask yourself: Is this quest for the perfect wave really worth dying for?
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.