A film review by Craig J. Koban November 7, 2012
2012, PG-13, 100 mins.
2012, PG-13, 100 mins.
Jay: Jonny Weston /
Brenda: Abigail Spencer /
Sonny: Taylor Handley
is a good natured, noble minded, and mostly entertaining biopic of
Californian surfer Jay Moriarty, who at the tender age of 16 was made very
famous by wiping out at Mavericks – a surfing location in Northern
California known for its treacherously high and dangerous waves – which
was caught on camera and made the cover of Surfer Magazine.
These Maverick waves, I have read, can crest at nearly 30 feet and
achieve a height of nearly 100 feet, which begs two questions: (1) What
kind of insane person would ever attempt to ride such a potentially fatal
wave and (2) what kind of mother would allow such a young man to risk his
life in pursuit of such a perilous dream?
I’m not quite
sure if CHASING MAVERICKS is meant to be an overt tribute to Moriarty’s
courage, determination, and fortitude or an appreciation piece
about surfing and the mentality required to participate in it or a
criticism of the dangers of the such endeavors.
Perhaps it’s a bit of all of those elements.
I certainly came out of the film respecting the talent and raw
physicality required to even attempt riding Mavericks (if you can’t, for
example, hold your breath for 4-plus minutes, then how would you ever
survive if one of the waves drove you deep down underwater?), but I found
myself distancing from the material when it comes to the hazards of the
sport. Any reasonable and
sound-minded person would never attempt what Moriarty did in
the early 90’s as a teen. In
the end, I guess you just have to respect his raw gumption.
As for the
film’s story of Moriarty’s life?
It’s affable and engaging enough, but riddled with
TV-movie-of-the-week contrivances and regurgitated parts of countless
other coming of age films. In a
brief prologue that shows Moriarty's childhood and early brush with surfing
addiction, we see how his early attempts at the sport – leaving him
bloodied after using an old Krazy Glued and duck taped together surf board
– leads to his future prominence as an adolescent surfing daredevil of
skill and finesse. The
teenage Jay (played with an affectionate blank faced earnestness and
pluck by newcomer Jonny Weston) has a home life from hell: his mother
(Elizabeth Shue) is a perpetually unemployed alcoholic and his father is
not an active presence in his world anymore.
Maybe this is
what acted as a catalyst for Jay's engagement in surfing and, in
particular, his interest in his neighbor, Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler,
nicely understated) who is the Yoda of surfers in his mindset.
Jay’s interest in Frosty is peaked when he sees him ride
those monstrous Maverick waves. He
begs and pleads for Frosty to train him to ride Mavericks, which Frosty
begrudgingly agrees to, but only if the teen adheres to every single one
of his orders, which includes tiring drills of holding his breath for
minutes, paddle boarding 36 miles across Half Moon Bay, underwater reef
exploration, and – gasp! – three page essays on “the power of
observation.” The more the
two spend time together the more a father/son bond is formed between them,
and as the sensei teaches his grasshopper student the ways of big wave
surfing, the student reciprocates by being a soothing voice of reason in
Frosty’s life when tragedy strikes.
The film is at
its dramatic best when simply honing in on the subtle and sincere
relationship between Jay and Frosty, and Butler and Weston have a
nice, unforced chemistry and camaraderie on screen (despite the fact that
the latter actor is
somewhat stiff and mannered as a performer). Even
though the arc of the relationship seems ripe with obligatory elements of
so many other mentor/student-centric films, it’s the genuineness of the
performances that keep everything afloat (no pun intended).
Jay finds a surrogate father figure in Frosty that he can look
up to and love and Frosty has an emotional anchor in Jay when his own
personal life takes tumultuous detours; both characters come off as compassionate and authentically
I only wished,
though, that the screenplay didn’t get so bogged down is manufactured
subplots, which the film seems to pile up on top of each other without
looking back. We have the
father who abandoned his kid; the downtrodden, financially ruined, and
booze-loving mother (well played by Shue, but in a horribly underwritten
role); the girl that the hero has had a crush on since boyhood (the lovely
and photogenic Leven Rambin) who does not reciprocate love back until the
screenplay deems it fit; the standard-order bully (Taylor Handley) that
makes the underdog’s life miserable and then comes to respect him; and
a best friend which a good heart that manages to sink into drug
trafficking for extra cash. Nothing
here in the script feels remotely pioneering or invigorating.
does score huge points where it counts in the arena of its
cinematography (by Oliver Euclid and Bill Pope) that captures the
intimidating beauty and awe-inspiring magnitude of the Maverick waves.
It’s abundantly clear that both Butler and Weston do a majority
of their own surfing, and the extent to which CGI alterations or stunt
doubles were used seems almost invisible at times.
The real bravura and entrancing footage comes in the latter half of
the film where the El-Nino empowered Maverick waves themselves – and Jay’s daredevil mission to conquer them – is captured, during
which we see beforehand killer waves the size of apartment buildings
topple over surfers – and nearly capsize some boats – before Jay's goes on his legendary
and borderline suicidal run. CHASING
MAVERICKS, if anything, deserves to be seen on as big of a screen as
I was frankly
surprised to see that this was jointly directed by Curtis Hanson and
Michael Apted (whom replaced Hanson when he left the production due to
illness), and the resulting melodramatic film hardly seems worthy of their
high pedigree of combined talent (considering their collective resume,
CHASING MAVERICKS is a decidedly forgettable blip).
Yet, despite the film’s predictable story mechanizations and
false beats of artificial conflict, CHASING MAVERICKS contains decent and
lived-in performances and some truly astounding surfing footage that pays
rightful kudos to the natural highs and unmitigated risks of the sport.
The film’s end title credits are a real bummer for those not familiar
with Moriarty’s life; he drowned in an apparent fee-diving accident,
survived by his wife, his old childhood crush.
How touching, doubly ironic, and hauntingly fitting: Moriarty was
baptized on the water as a future surfing legend and later died a man
without apparent fear in the water.