Some movies practically beg your mind to wander. As I sat through the soggy formula-fest that is Chasing Mavericks, I found myself contemplating a single question: What is it about the surfing movie that so resists greatness?
Think about it. Every other genre, however marginal or out of fashion — down to the humble musical and martial-arts film — has seen cinematic excellence achieved within it. What is it about sand, a board and the open sea that seems to guarantee a lack of movie magic?
Hell, I don’t know. It was just nice to think about something besides Chasing Mavericks for a couple of paragraphs. This has to rank as the least accomplished picture to be assembled by two accomplished directors, at least since the dawn of the millennium.
How is it possible for filmmakers as gifted as Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) and Michael Apted (the Up documentary series) to combine forces and produce a movie as inconsequential as this? Well, that’s one mystery we can solve. According to my research, the two didn’t actually work together. Apted simply took over for the final two weeks of shooting when Hanson was sidelined by illness. Of course, that leaves the mystery of why an artist of Hanson’s caliber would get mixed up with a project this silly in the first place.
You know you haven’t bought a ticket to the First Great Surfing Movie Ever Made when the opening scene features a shot of a figure swimming underwater and the voice of Gerard Butler trying not to sound Scottish while solemnly intoning, “We all come from the sea, but we are not all of the sea.”
It turns out the swimmer is Jay Moriarity, and he is of the sea. Newcomer Jonny Weston plays the real-life Santa Cruz native who gained attention by surfing big waves back in 1994, when he was just 15. Butler costars as his neighbor, a local surfing legend named Frosty Hesson. He, too, is of the sea.
Unfortunately for Jay, his dad is of the deadbeats, and his mother (Elisabeth Shue) is of the Smirnoff. That sets the stage for a by-the-numbers coming-of-age saga that obligates the teen to overcome a variety pack of obstacles before testing his mettle on the Mavericks — a near-mythical stretch of giant waves off the coast of northern California.
Some of these obstacles are environmental. There’s the mandatory bully (Taylor Handley), for example, straight out of The Karate Kid. And a childhood sweetheart (Leven Rambin) whom Jay yearns to make his teenage sweetheart. Other hurdles are required courses at Frosty U. Jay convinces his curmudgeonly neighbor to act as his surf mentor, and the next thing he knows, the kid finds himself writing essays on topics such as “fear versus panic” and listening to the dude’s lectures on the Four Pillars of Life.
It’s all as dopey as it is derivative, and really just filler designed to build anticipation for the climactic sequence in which the now 16-year-old Moriarity gets his first crack at the Mavericks. My guess is the spectacle of these moving mountains fascinated Hanson, and that fascination drew him to this project. That’s understandable.
What isn’t is the degree to which the moviemakers botched the job when it came time to incorporate their money shots of these awesome waters into the body of the film. The two don’t remotely match, and not just because nothing in the body is remotely awesome.
The colors, lighting and resolution are so laughably off that the feel-good final sequence might as well have been filmed in black and white. It’s a distractingly sloppy capper to a couple hours of total Hollywood corn, and an unhappy reminder of the creative wipeout Hanson’s career has unexpectedly become.