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Movie review: In 'Chasing Mavericks,' surf's up, film's flat

The spectacular footage of the massive waves of Half Moon Bay ultimately prove far more involving than the overwrought story of true surfing legend Jay Moriarity.

October 25, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

The killer waves in "Chasing Mavericks" are the thing to watch, the only thing to watch. They are angry waves, monsters — with lots of attitude and undertow. If only the rest of the film had followed in their wake. The story, and even the surfing, just don't hold water against their crushing presence or fierce beauty.

Starring Gerard Butler, newcomer Jonny Weston and other beachy types, "Chasing Mavericks" is based on the true story of surfing wunderkind Jay Moriarity (Weston). He lived a short but meaningful life, making his name by surfing, and surviving, the infamous Mavericks surf break at California's Half Moon Bay. Success came early, at 16, and death as well — a free-diving accident off the Maldives when he was about to turn 23. By that point Moriarity had become a major figure in the surfing world, known as much for his winning smile as his exceptional athleticism.

The story, by Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper, molded into a screenplay by Kario Salem, focuses on Moriarity's early obsession with the sport, his preparation to take on the big waves and his first-time try at the Mavericks. Even though it was a wipeout, the moment gave the teenager an impressive start. Caught by photographers and splashed across surfing publications everywhere, he became an overnight sensation.

The film, which started under the direction of Curtis Hanson, with Michael Apted stepping in when Hanson became ill, suffers from a serious unevenness from the first frame to the last. In fact, "Mavericks" is so far from either director's best work — Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" or "The River Wild," Apted's "Coal Miner's Daughter" or "Gorillas in the Mist" — it's hard to find their imprint at all.

The footage itself, particularly of the surf, is spectacular, with veteran cinematographer Bill Pope handling the camerawork. But the drama is soggy, overreaching for the heartfelt and overdoing the inspirational. The "Live Like Jay" mantra, which honors Moriarity's indomitable spirit, never rings with the kind of emotional truth it actually carries in the world of competitive surfing and around his hometown of Santa Cruz.

As "Chasing Mavericks" chronicles, by all accounts Moriarity was a decent kid with a difficult start. After his dad left, his mom, played by Elisabeth Shue, spent most of her time drunk and depressed — at least in the film's telling. As a teenager, Jay found a sense of purpose in riding the big waves and a surrogate father figure in an irascible older surfing dude named Frosty (Butler). For some human conflict, there is a local tough (Taylor Handley) who's been specializing in bullying him since grade school. And on the romantic front, there is Kim (Leven Rambin), the girl he got a crush on at 9 and would eventually marry.

Weston definitely looks the part of young surfer dude on the rise — blond and bronzed with startling blue eyes. Though he is better in his scenes with Rambin, the first-time actor struggles, particularly opposite the dominating presence of Butler. Meanwhile, Shue, a fine actress who more than proved in "Leaving Las Vegas" that she knows how to finesse a drunk scene, is seriously wasted here (as in ill-used). Most of her time is spent passed out on the bed, with Jay left to make the dinners, wash the clothes and wake her up when she oversleeps, which is all the time.

As for Butler, "Chasing Mavericks" seems to continue the trend of roles that have the actor saving whatever world he happens into. His best performances thus far are rooted in ancient times — leading the Spartans into that doomed battle in 2006's "300," running the resistance in Ralph Fiennes' update of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" in 2011. The rest of the lot, including last year's "Machine Gun Preacher," haven't been a good fit despite, or perhaps because of, all their do-gooding intentions. "Chasing Mavericks" falls into the "Machine Gun" category of disappointments — at best it's a wash.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

'Chasing Mavericks'

MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and some perilous action

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Playing: In general release

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