Jay Moriarity is a legend in surfing circles, and his life story – and accidental death at age 22 – gets the Hollywood treatment in “Chasing Mavericks.” Too bad it’s a total wipeout.
Set mostly in 1987 Santa Cruz, Jay’s too-short life is an against-all-odds tale of perseverance. Dad abandons him. Mom (Elisabeth Shue) drinks. Romance with childhood crush, Kim (Leven Rambin), won’t blossom, and he’s being bullied by a kid who calls him “Little Trash.” For a 15-year-old, that’s a stacked deck.
How Jay was so fearlessly driven toward his goal of surfing the humongous waves at the legendary Mavericks, a beach off the California coast, is, by nature, inspirational. Ditto for his relationship with local wave-riding legend Rick “Frosty” Hesson (Gerard Butler), the man who becomes his surrogate dad. Each have their baggage, and each find solace in the surf. What unfolds – at a snail’s pace – however, is too much treacle to swallow.
The surfing footage, including underwater shots and peeks inside the barrel, is the real star of the film. But while the waves are fierce, the script from Kario Salem (“The Score”) and Brandon Hooper doesn’t do its actors or directors Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”) and Michael Apted (“Enough”) any favors. The story drowns in an ocean of clichés, rote plot devices (an unopened letter from Dad), predictable outcomes, pedestrian dialogue about “the vast greatness of the sea” and dime-store philosophy: “You panic, you die.”
Hanson became ill during filming and Apted took over and finished the movie. One can only imagine how much better the film might have been had the Oscar-nominated Hanson rode it out.
Newcomer Jonny Weston, a dead ringer for Christoper Atkins of “Blue Lagoon” fame, plays Jay. He’s got beautiful eyes and enviable blonde curls, but delivers a rather wooden portrayal of a guy remembered for his oversized personality.
A shaggy-haired Butler, also an executive producer, certainly can rock a wetsuit, but he’s not really given anything too meaty to chew, other than to spout surfing philosophy. Frosty agrees to school Jay on how to survive 50-foot swells. Over those 12 weeks, Frosty’s tough-guy demeanor begins to melt, as they fight, bond, and ultimately find redemption in their broken lives.
For his part, Butler, no stranger to busting out the brawn (“300,” “Law Abiding Citizen”), does a lot of his own surfing in the film. During shooting, he had close call after a wave crushed him.
As iconic as he was, Moriarity would make for a compelling documentary, but in feature-film form, he’s just another surfer lost in the foam.
(PG for for thematic elements and some perilous action.) Cast includes Gerard Butler, Elisabeth Shue, Jonny Weston. 2 stars out of 4.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com.