Regarding legendary MGM bathing beauty Esther Williams, producer Joe Pasternak once famously quipped, “Wet, she’s a star.”
So it goes with “Chasing Mavericks,” a biopic that features not enough stirringly gorgeous surfing footage and way too many clunky biopic clichés in telling the story of surf legend Jay Moriarity. With a storyline as by-the-numbers as a square dance, the movie’s one surprise comes with the closing credits — namely, that this trite “inspirational” movie is the product of two world-class filmmakers, Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted.
After a prologue in which eight-year-old Jay, already obsessed with the big waves, is rescued from drowning by his ten-hanging neighbor Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), we meet our lead character at age 15 and played by Jonny Weston. A talented young surfer, Jay sneaks off one morning and watches Frosty tackle Mavericks, a giant super-wave thought by many to be the stuff of legend.
Once he sees Mavericks, Jay has found his Mt. Everest, and he won’t rest until he can conquer it. He begs Frosty to train him, and so begins a 12-week course that will include the physical (paddling from Santa Cruz to Monterey, learning to go four minutes without breathing) and the mental (Jay writes essays for Frosty about observing the tides and conquering personal demons).
Naturally, the surf lessons become life lessons, whether it’s about taking a step back and finding the easy way through a situation or distinguishing the difference between fear (a good thing) and panic (not so much). Kario Salem’s screenplay ticks off the character development in the most predictable way possible; when Jay reveals early on that he has an unopened latter from the father who abandoned him as a child, we know that envelope’s going to be torn open in the final act.
Because of his positive attitude and many achievements at a relatively young age, Jay Moriarity became a legend in the surf world. Unfortunately, that mantle anchors the film — rather than portray Jay as the complex and interesting person he no doubt was, the movie reduces him to a paragon. Constantly upbeat and crowned in a halo of blond curls, Weston has nothing to play that can make Jay anything but a blank, shiny ideal.
Butler may still be grappling with his American accent, but at least Frosty has a flaw or two that give the actor something to do. The women in the film are handed even less to work with, stuck playing The Girlfriend (Leven Rambin) or The Boozy Mom Who Suddenly Isn’t Boozy Anymore (Elisabeth Shue). Abigail Spencer, as Frosty’s wife, gets some relatively complex moments, but even she is saddled with the requisite “Please don’t go surf Mavericks tonight, honey” speech.
None of the film’s many flaws matter when Jay or Frosty hops on a board and swims out to the waves. If the surfing scenes are real, then they’re breathtaking; if they’re faked, then they’ve been faked brilliantly. But for that, better to rent “The Endless Summer” or “Step Into Liquid” so you can cut right to the good stuff without having to wade through all the personal-growth and surrogate-family bushwa that “Chasing Mavericks” handles so badly.