With Jonny Weston, Gerard Butler, Elisabeth Shue, Leven Rambin, Abigail Spencer. Written by Kario Salem. Directed by Michael Apted, Curtis Hanson. Rated PG for thematic elements and some perilous action. 104 minutes.
You probably don’t know much about surfing and that’s okay. Here in New England, surfing is more associated with the Internet than catching the big waves. So you’ve probably never heard of Jay Moriarty. If you’re relying on the fact that CHASING MAVERICKS is co-produced by Walden Media, which has built a reputation for family-friendly entertainment such as the “Narnia” movies, you may want to do a search on Moriarty. That’s not to say the film isn’t wholesome, but families thinking this is a warm-and-fuzzy entertainment ought to know what they are getting into.
We first meet Jay as a little boy and he’s already fascinated by the oceans and waves. After a brief prologue in which he almost drowns, we jump ahead to 1993 where the 15-year-old Jay (Jonny Weston) longs to surf the big waves. Indeed, he’s fascinated watching his neighbor Frosty (Gerard Butler) do just that and begs the older man to teach him, but of course – he’s just a boy.
What ensues is a surfer’s version of “The Karate Kid” where the older man agrees to teach him, provided he does as he’s told. Instead of sanding the back porch or waxing the car, he’s made to write essays. Frosty takes his surfing seriously and wants Jay to learn not just the physical and mental aspect of the skill set, but also the emotional and spiritual parts as well. One of the essays is about him facing his fears.
Various elements motivate the two in their journey. Jay’s father has abandoned the family, and his mother (Elisabeth Shue) has a drinking problem. Frosty is an orphan with a loving wife (Abigail Spencer) and two kids, who is still emotionally closed off. At one point his wife has to point out the obvious: Jay is looking to him as a surrogate father.
There’s also a bad kid who we first meet as an 8-year-old breaking off car mirrors with a baseball bat and a friend who is a good kid who makes some bad decisions. And, of course, there’s the beautiful girl Kim (Leven Rambin), who is a childhood friend of Jay’s and his secret love, but he doesn’t know if she’s interested in him that way. It all comes down to Jay proving himself worthy of going out and facing the “mavericks,” the big waves that can be absolutely treacherous to even experienced surfers. You can probably guess what happens.
And there the movie should end. Jay has triumphed, we’ve seen some remarkable footage of people surfing 30-foot waves, and most everyone is redeemed. However, the story does not end there and in an epilogue we learn what happened to Jay. If this hadn’t been a good-natured formula film with some pleasant performances from its leads, it might not be such a shock, but we have been in no way prepared for how the story ends. Life often provides unpleasant surprises, but drama can be shaped and explicitly telling us upfront what sort of story we were seeing might have made a difference.
Perhaps it is because director Curtis Hanson had to withdraw during production for health reasons and the film was completed by Michael Apted that neither had full control of the film. The story is told in strict chronological fashion which was probably a mistake. “Chasing Mavericks” presents itself as a coming-of-age story which should end with the young boy becoming a young man. Unfortunately, fate had other ideas. As the old saying goes, God writes lousy theater.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.