Review: 'Chasing Mavericks' Only Floats When It's in the Water

If you were a wee California lad in need of a father figure, some surfing guidance, and just general life lessons, would you seek out a guy who looks like a grouchy, dissolute Jesus and who, in the case of "Chasing Mavericks," happens to be played by Gerard Butler? Didn’t think so.

"Chasing Mavericks" is based on the story of surf legend Jay Moriarty, who at age 16 made a name for himself conquering the waves of Mavericks, a Northern California surfing location frequented by daring big-wave surfers. (Moriarty died in 2001 at age 22, in a drowning accident.) As the picture opens, little surf spud Jay – at that point played by a supernaturally serene-looking kid named Cooper Timberline – is nearly swept away by some regular-sized waves not far from his Santa Cruz home. He’s rescued by “Frosty” Hesson (Butler), who happens to be surfing nearby. Frosty gives the kid a crabby lecture before dropping him off at the digs he shares with his mom (Elisabeth Shue), who’s just barely holding the household together. Fast-forward five years and Jay – now played by Jonny Weston, a Facebook-era Adonis with a sunny tumble of curls -- has become an accomplished teenage surfer, though he also holds down double shifts at the local pizza joint and apparently squeezes in a little school here and there.

Jay still idolizes old Frosty, and one day follows the whiskery crustacean to his top-secret surfing spot, known by the locals as Mavericks. Jay begs Frosty to help him prepare, mentally and physically, to take on those near-mythical waves, and Frosty, grumbling all the way, agrees. What follows is an undistinguished mentor-acolyte melodrama with one significant saving grace: Actual surfing.

It’s the words in between the waves that are the problem, and Butler’s phony-grizzly demeanor sure doesn’t help. "Chasing Mavericks" was directed by Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson (Apted stepped in to complete principal photography after Hanson was sidelined by health issues), and the picture’s essential structure is solid enough. Shot by Bill Pope, the movie looks glorious – there’s a specific and definitive pleasure to be had in watching tiny, wet-suit-clad figures, perched on their relatively small fiberglass chariots, slip into the grooves of massive gray-green, snow-capped waves.

How can you match those visuals with dialogue? You probably can’t, but you can do a lot better than “Somebody’s gonna die out there!” and “We all come from the sea, but we are not all of the sea.” (The script is by Kario Salem, from a story by Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper.) Chasing Mavericks is filled with bromides and tired reruns of father-son clichés. Last year’s true-life drama "Soul Surfer" -- which told the story of surf champ Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm in a shark attack – was perhaps just as conventional on the surface, but didn’t clutch so desperately at artificial enlightenment.

That’s not to say "Chasing Mavericks" isn’t rousing in places, particularly during those stupendous surfing sequences. But the ocean is really its biggest star; Butler is the also-ran. It’s entirely likely that the real-life Frosty Hesson was a no-nonsense guy himself. Yet Butler isn’t playing a character here; he has simply assembled a set of qualities, which he proceeds to pantomime with dogged efficiency. At one point Frosty’s wife, played by the enjoyably flinty Abigail Spencer, tells her husband, “You’re a good man.” But at that point nothing in the script, or in Butler’s performance, suggests that this guy is anything more than an unshaven layabout who avoids work and family in order to pursue what appears to be his truest love, surfing.

Later, Frosty becomes a better dad to his own children by offering to read to them, and he acquiesces to Jay’s need for a surrogate father. (He also remodels his wife’s dumpy kitchen.) But it’s too little too late, and the fault may not lie entirely with the script. Butler spends most of the picture making a half-scowling face that’s the equivalent of Popeye’s “Aaaaargh,” a handy signifier for any emotion his character might be called upon to feel. He’s much better when he’s moving: Running, surfing, even just strutting toward the sea in a wetsuit. In "Chasing Mavericks", it’s movement that’s inspirational. Words are just an unfortunate afterthought.

Grade: C-