By all accounts, Jay Moriarity was a lovely young man: a talented, dedicated surfer whose enthusiasm and optimism were infectious throughout the Santa Cruz, Calif., community where he was well known and loved.
But that doesn’t exactly make him the most compelling figure to place at the center of a film, at least not in the one-note way in which he’s depicted in “Chasing Mavericks.”
This cloyingly family-friendly production tells the story of the late surfer (played by newcomer Jonny Weston) in 1994, when he’s only 15 years old and dares to take on the dangerous and potentially deadly Mavericks surf break just up the coast from his home. Jay wants to conquer these waves ... well, because they’re there. And he enlists a gruff, reluctant local legend, Frosty (Gerard Butler, struggling to hide his Scottish accent), to help him train.
This sets up a “Karate Kid”-style, mentor-student, father-son formula in which the plucky underdog awakens early each day to complete a series of arduous tasks in preparation for a once-in-a-decade, five-story-tall wall of water. Every step of the way is accompanied by the plainly spelled-out reasons why it matters. Nothing is left to our imagination or interpretation.
Not a single character or moment rings true in the script from Kario Salem, based on a story by Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper. No one feels like a fully fleshed-out human being, from Jay’s alcoholic mother (Elisabeth Shue, doing the best she can with an underwritten role) to the pretty childhood friend who would become the love of his life (Leven Rambin) to the tough kid who arbitrarily bullies him. They are all coming-of-age-movie types.
But this is most troublingly the case with Jay himself who, in the hands of the angelic Weston, comes off as singularly sweet and upbeat, without an ounce of complexity or even garden-variety teen angst. (Jay Moriarity died in 2001, the day before his 23rd birthday, in a free-diving accident in the Maldives.) With his curly blonde locks and big blue eyes, he’s consistently eager and guileless and actually a little boring, as is the film itself.
“Chasing Mavericks” is credited to two longtime directors, Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted, because Apted had to step in to complete the picture when Hanson was suffering from some health issues. Some of the surfing footage is spectacular but the film as a whole lacks the kind of tonal and aesthetic imprimatur you’d want to see from a respected veteran, much less two.
The film features some well-known names from the world of surfing but that doesn’t add much authenticity; despite the inherent peril involved in the sport, and in this particular location, everything feels very clean and safe. The surfer dudes don’t go around spouting stereotypically idiotic bro slang to each other, but they don’t feel like real people, either.
“Chasing Mavericks,” a Fox 2000 release, is rated PG for thematic elements and some perilous action. Running time: 115 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
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