The waves are big in Chasing Mavericks. No, not just big, HUGE, as the Donald would put it. Some are up to five stories high, brought on by a combination of storms in the Pacific and the geography of the coast near Monterrey, California, where this inspirational surfing drama takes place. The time is 1990, when a particularly strong instance of the periodic climate pattern called "El Nino" brought on these giant waves - in surfer lore known as "mavericks."
Seeing these waves during the final sequence makes having sat through what came before almost bearable. At least they have shock and awe - watching 50-foot cruisers nearly top-size in their wake is impressive. To think that someone would want to ride one only makes you question their sanity.
This film - co-directed by Hollywood heavyweights Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted - follows the path of two such wannabes: an aging surfer struggling to reconcile his rebellious spirit within the confines of responsible parenthood; and a teen growing up with his mom after his father abandoned them years before. Guess what? They both teach each other life lessons.
For the aptly-named Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), it is to realize that what’s more important than finding that perfect maverick is to care for his wife Brenda (a warm Abigail Spencer) and their two kids. For Jay Moriarty (John Weston) it is to overcome his fears of abandonment and self-loathing; and, yes, to ride that wave.
Why there are two directors of this after-school special-styled movie is something of a mystery; but here’s a case where 1 + 1 = 0. Both Hanson and Apted are responsible for some notable titles over the past two decades ("LA Confidential," "Coal Miner’s Daughter" and, in Apted’s case, the entire "Up" series of documentaries that followed the lives of a group of fourteen Britishers over 49 years); but in this case they’ve all but surrendered their duties to their second-unit directors. The generic storytelling robs the film of any personality or human warmth, even when tragedy strikes.
The story is based on the life of Jay Moriarty - a California surfer who became a celebrity after photos of him riding a maverick in Monterrey’s Half Moon Bay at the age of 16 put him on the cover of a leading surfing magazine. He was to die some five years later in a diving accident in the Indian Ocean. The film focuses on the intense training Moriarty underwent with his mentor Hesson in a three-month period prior to the day those photos were taken. It is rigorous - hours of paddling out in the ocean, lengthy sessions of underwater breath control, learning the geography of the ocean and writing about his experiences. It has the feel of a self-help manual, right down to the pillars of wisdom that Hesson gives the boy to guide him on his journey.
Too bad that none of it resonates. For much of the time, "Chasing Mavericks" is a handsome life lesson replete with stick characters and soap operatic situations. It’s not until the majestic mavericks make an appearance that the film lives up to its promise. By then, though, you’ll likely have drowned in the bathos.
Gerard Butler brings macho brio to Hesson - he looks every inch the aging surfer and captures his character’s brooding, laconic nature. It’s unfortunate his moments of sensitivity are unconvincing. Newcomer Weston is appealing enough; unfortunately he acts and looks too much like Kirk Cameron for comfort. The women fare better: Spencer manages to convey much of her character’s spiritual side with just a stare, while Elizabeth Shue shows why she’s one of Hollywood’s better character actresses as Moriarty’s struggling single-mom. Her part, though, is under-written to the point of distraction.
Surfing movies often have a lofty spiritual message - that quest for the perfect wave is looked as a metaphor for life. Sometimes this makes a great movie, such as in John Milius’ "Big Wednesday;" but too often - as in this case - it becomes a collection of clichés out of a Lifetime movie: "The Karate Kid" with surfboards. Towards the end when the two men confess their love for each other, the film takes an oddly unexpected homoerotic turn. Leave that movie, though, to ChiChi LaRue.