When we invent screenwriting programs that can write a screenplay from start to finish, it will crank out something like Chasing Mavericks. The script is so cynically calculated in its plot beats and character motivations that it’s easy to forget the story is based on a person’s real life. The biopic of surfing prodigy Jay Moriarty comes off as a disservice to his memory as his character, like everyone else in the movie, is one-dimensional and saddled with stilted dialogue. The only times when Mavericks truly comes alive is when it embraces the act of surfing; everything else is a wipeout.
Jay Moriarty (Jonny Weston) was surfing since he was eight, and at age fifteen, he’s ready for something bigger and more challenging. His neighbor, Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), is a surfing virtuoso who goes on secret jaunts to the California coast to surf “mavericks”, 30-foot-high waves that can destroy inexperienced surfers. Reluctantly, Frosty takes Moriarty on as a protégé only so the bright-eyed, constantly-smiling kid doesn’t get killed trying to conquer the waves. Along the way, Moriarty must deal with his irresponsible mother (Elisabeth Shue), duplicitous “friend” Blond (Devin Crittenden), cartoonish bully Sonny (Taylor Handley), and requisite love-interest Kim (Leven Rambin). Meanwhile, Frosty wrestles with how to be a good father and husband because his parents died when he was young.
No one in the film feels like a real person but simply an item on a checklist. You can almost see screenwriter Kario Salem checking his how-to books, but forgetting to add anything special or take a single risk. We never see much of Moriarty’s home life beyond his screw-up mother, and this qualifies as “back story”. There’s absolutely no reason for Sonny to be in the film, but the rules of screenwriting say Moriarty needs an antagonist. A large part of the problem is that we meet Moriarty, Kim, Blond, and Sonny when they’re all kids, and when the movie jumps ahead seven years, all of them are still acting the same way (Sonny even carries the same baseball bat). With characters written so paper-thin, it’s hard to qualify Chasing Mavericks as a “coming-of-age” story, especially when Moriarty doesn’t change much. He keeps following his dream. Hooray.
It’s never difficult to pin down any character’s motivations, partially because the characters never miss a moment to tell you. In case you couldn’t figure out that there’s a surrogate father-son relationship happening between Frosty and Moriarty, Frosty’s wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer) is on hand to let us know. Every moment is painfully announced to the point where you can set your watch to when the second act rising conflict will come about and the main characters will have to deal with their problems before the redemptive third act.
If there’s one thing the script can’t screw up, it’s how directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted along with cinematographers Oliver Euclid and Bill Pope captured the art of surfing. I never had much appreciation for surfing before this film, and Chasing Mavericks has set a high bar. Frosty can saddle Jay with all the Mr. Miyagi crap about four pillars of strength, but we allow that fade into the background as the movie captures the physicality and allure of surfing. The directors and cinematographer make their visuals more than “Big Wave, Tiny Person”. From the first surfing scene of Moriarty taking on a relatively small wave, we see the physical power and agility required to constantly control the board. If there’s any honest respect towards Moriarty’s legacy, it’s in the appreciation of his craft.
Sadly, that’s as far as the appreciation goes. Even if the story hews closely to the events of Moriarty’s life (and I don’t know if it does), the plot beats still feel phony and stiff. Moriarty’s lust for life isn’t so much lusty as it is polite and formal. The telegraphed screenplay is too clunky and rigid to understand the difficulty of human emotions. It’s a shame the film doesn’t have the gracefulness of the surfers it depicts.