One of the first things we see in “Chasing Mavericks,” a mostly uninspiring surfing drama starring Gerard Butler, his lumpy face framed by strands of willowy wet hair, are the words “Based on a True Story.” But the true story behind the scenes of “Chasing Mavericks” is almost as compelling as what made it onto the screen – Butler was hospitalized in a surfing stunt gone wrong (one that left the star nearly dead according to some reports) and the film’s original director, “L.A. Confidential” helmer Curtis Hanson, had to leave the project following heart surgery (“Gorillas in the Mist” director Michael Apted was called in to finish the film; the two filmmakers share credit, in an atypical DGA decision). The fact that you can’t see the Frankenstein stitches used to sew the film together is a testament to the cleverness of the editorial team, but it also speaks volumes about the interchangeable blandness of the movie.
The movie begins in the late ’80s, with two kids playing too close to the shore. When a giant wave sweeps the young boy into the water, he’s scooped up by Butler’s Frosty, and given a ride home (it turns out that Frosty lives across the street). The young boy is infatuated with the water, counting the waves, and attempting to surf on a rickety old board he excavates from his garage. The movie then jumps forward seven years, and the young boy, Jay (now played by Jonny Weston), is a teenager who forges an uneasy teacher/student (or is it father/son) relationship with Frosty, who reluctantly agrees to teach him how to ride the “mavericks” – a series of mythically monstrous waves up the coast of California.
For the remainder of the movie, we get a nearly feature-length training montage, with Frosty giving Jay both practical and existential tips on the fundamentals of surfing. Jay’s dad abandoned him and his beleaguered mother (played selflessly by Elisabeth Shue) so he welcomes the tough-love mentorship of Frosty, whose own parents died while he was very young. (Frosty does have a put-upon wife, played by former Don Draper paramour Abigail Spencer, and two young daughters.) Frosty assigns Jay essays to write for homework and sets a number of almost impossible goals, including holding his breath for an Aquaman-worthy four minutes and being able to paddle across a huge body of water. It gets tiresome.
Jay is a sunny character who is almost entirely devoid of conflict. He’s madly in love with his childhood sweetheart (played by Leven Rambin), who after a while just confesses her love to him (that was easy). Similarly he’s worried about his best friend falling in with a gang of surfing hooligans (virtually nothing comes of it), and his mother, who seems to battle substance abuse and crippling depression early on, simply gets her act together by the end of the movie, devoid of an actual arc or even a casual explanation. At one point the movie suggests Jay’s studies could be suffering because of all of his intensive training, but that doesn’t pan out either. It’s all calm waters and smooth sailing, melodrama without the actual drama part. This all changes in the third act, with a pile-on of truly morbid plot points that, while taken from the real life story, serve to lessen the moral and cosmic uplift the movie has fought so hard to establish and maintain. By the time the credits roll, two major characters have died (you could look up the story if you wanted to) and a funereal grimness has set in.
“Chasing Mavericks” was photographed by ace cinematographer Bill Pope and edited by John Gilbert (who quilted the first “Lord of the Rings” together) and often times the surfing sequences have a kind of magisterial grandeur, with the wave roaring and rambling to life like an erupting volcano or a monster from a ’70s comic book. Where “Chasing Mavericks” fails, however, is to make you feel what any of this is like – the euphoria of standing on top of a board and cresting the wave, the tomblike enclosure of a wave crashing on top of you – instead it’s a series of genuinely beautiful images that are weightless and emotionally void. The photography is easy to admire, even when it’s set to a relentless and distractingly dated series of ’90s pop novelties – just when you thought you would never hear the Butthole Surfers again, here they come! – but it’s hard to ever truly get engaged.
Butler, for his part, gives off a kind of aquatic sensei vibe, his cool detachment and roguish gruffness concealing the pain hidden within. He’s going for a Clint Eastwood-meets-Obi Wan Kenobi vibe, which occasionally veers too far into the former’s callousness. When his wife says, “You’re a good man,” it’s a startling moment since for most of the movie all he’s been is unrepentantly harsh to almost everyone around him. Weston is impressive on the board but less so when handling anything even remotely dramatic. This could, however, be the weakness of the screenplay and not the performance. And Shue, you just wish would fire her agent and find somebody better.
As far as the primordial attraction humans have to waves, the movie touches on it, but only briefly, in an opening bit of narration that explains that while we might have come from the water, only a few of us are of the water. (Whatever that means.) But any kind of thematic underpinnings have been washed away by the tide and the movie’s message mutates from being “follow your dreams” to “following your dreams will most likely get you killed” (umm…). It’s hard to tell who is to blame for the movie’s abrasive anonymousness – Curtis or Apted – but it hardly matters. In either directors’ hands, “Chasing Mavericks” would have been a wipe-out. It’s totally bogus. [D]