Even landlocked as we are, in the middle of North America, it’s still easy to understand the allure of surfing the Big Wave. Pounding breakers, especially of the heights generated by ocean coastlines, are an awesome sight, and though we might think the daredevils who attempt to ride wooden sticks on top of them are crazy, you’ve gotta admit it looks pretty cool.
Jay Moriarity was a teenage surfing prodigy who became world famous when his spectacular wipeout on the Mavericks break was captured on film and made the cover of Surfer magazine. Chasing Mavericks dramatizes the story of Jay’s life leading up to that moment, but while the surfing scenes are as jaw-dropping as you’d expect, the rest of the movie is under water.
8-year-old Jay is rescued from near drowning by his surfer neighbour, Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), which sparks his interest in riding the waves. Seven years later, Jay (Jonny Weston) has a wall of trophies and a desire to go further when he learns that Frosty has been surfing the legendary Mavericks with a small group of friends. The group want the break to remain their secret, and Frosty isn’t happy when Jay begs him for lessons on how to surf big waves, but wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer) encourages him to do it, hoping it will help him work through emotional issues related to the loss of his father.
Jay’s got some family troubles of his own, with an absentee military dad and an alcoholic mother (Elisabeth Shue) who’d be lost without her son. He’s also holding down a job at a pizza parlour while juggling school, surfer bullies, and his attraction to old friend Kim (Leven Rambin). But can he pull it all together to meet Frosty’s training goals in just 12 weeks? And will he survive some of the most dangerous waves on the planet?
Judging a biopic is sometimes difficult. Screenwriters take liberties with true stories, adding new characters and creating events that never actually happened. We permit this artistic licence in order to be entertained, because real-life is not always consistently interesting. But without first-hand knowledge of the events, or access to the writer to find out what’s been changed, it’s hard to criticize the dramatization.
I’m saying all this because I really want to like Chasing Mavericks, but it has a huge problem. By all accounts, the real Jay is an inspiring character: unceasingly positive, never far from a smile, respectful, gifted, and tenacious, and Weston’s performance mostly captures these qualities. The movie surrounding him, though, is dripping with more melodramatic cheese than the pizzas Jay makes. The characters around Jay all have problems that threaten to bring him down – mom’s alcoholism, his best friend’s drug abuse, a tragic death, even Frosty’s emotional blockage – but it all comes out like a mashup of old TV movies-of-the-week. If these things really did happen, that would be one thing, but if they’re just made up, it’s poorly-written pap that slows down the movie and punishes the actors. Butler struggles with emotional expression as much as his character does, and Shue’s barely-there presence doesn’t justify her star power.
The surfing cinematography, however, is fantastic, and if you love the sport, you might even enjoy the teaching scenes, which are pretty standard for a movie of this type, but provide a glimpse into the mindset of the surfer. Chasing Mavericks rides these crests well, but there’s a lot of furious paddling between them that doesn’t go anywhere.
Tags: movie review