There was a time when the names Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted meant something. Fifteen years ago, Hanson made two remarkable films in succession — L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys — and Apted (who took over the task of directing Mavericks after Hanson fell ill) has had a 50 year career as a director that included movies such as The World Is Not Enough, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, and a lot of films that are best not mentioned out of respect for Apted’s age ( er, Nell). Now the two directors combined can’t muster anything better than the cinematically inert Chasing Mavericks, an excruciatingly long, painfully tedious biopic based on the life of surfer Jay Moriarity.
There’s a reason why sports films contain training montages; they take something as mundane as punching bags, running, or paddling, add some anthemic music, and quickly transition us from one verse to the next. Chasing Mavericks is what would happen if someone decided to invert a training montage into a two-hour film. There is at least ten to 15 minutes of Chasing Mavericks devoted to just paddling surf boards out into the ocean, scenes that are often made even more banal because they are accompanied by new-age surfer platitudes spoken out of the side of Gerard Butler’s mouth as he attempts (badly) to affect an American accent.
Set in 1984, Chasing Mavericks is about a 16-year-old kid, Jay Moriarity, who wants to ride a really big wave. Not as part of a competition, nor to win a bet, or even to prove something to someone. He just wants to. Really badly. These giant waves are called mavericks (after the location in California where they were first discovered), and until El Niño came along, they were thought to be mythic (according to the movie, not reality). However, four other men — notably, Frosty (Gerard Butler) — knew where to find them, and they occasionally risked their lives for the high of 30 foot drops. Jay, whose father abandoned his family at a young age, looks up to Frosty, who also happens to live across the street. Frosty — knowing that Jay will attempt to tackle a maverick with or without his help — decides to take him under his wing so as to better prepare him for the eventuality. That training largely entails paddling a surf board and, I sh*t you not, writing insipid essays to strengthen the mind.
There are a few side concerns that also occupy screen time: Jay has a love interest in childhood friend (Kim Moriarity) and a loving mother (Elizabeth Shue) who hits the sauce a little too often, while Frosty has a wife that is way too wise and knowing to actually exist in a community where teenagers are encouraged to risk their lives for adrenaline rushes. There is also a bully, and a best friend with a drug problem, but both of those threads languish and are never returned to. Mostly, however, Chasing Mavericks is a slow crescendo toward anti-climax. It’s two hours of watching someone prepare for something that most people could not possibly give three craps about: Riding a giant wave on a surf board for posterity.
Audiences often complain when true-to-life movies take too many dramatic liberties, but the flip side of that is Chasing Mavericks, a film that could’ve used a few more liberties. There are no real stakes involved, except for the life of Jay, and it’s difficult to work up any sympathy for a flat character that knowingly enters into an activity that could result in his death. Worse still, no one in Jay’s life makes any real attempt to caution him from pursuing such a high-risk interest. There’s a thin line between bravery and reckless stupidity, and it’s hard not to think that what Jay is doing falls in the latter category, particularly in light of what eventually befalls Jay Moriarity.
Perhaps that’s a touch of fogeyism talking, but in either respect, it doesn’t affect my opinion of the movie: A logy, lifeless exercise that does little to capture the energy or spirit of what must have been a fearless and passionate surfer. It feels like a film directed by two men in their 60s and 70s who had enough enthusiasm for the project to sign on to it, but not enough to commit bringing it to life.