‘Chasing Mavericks’

Gerard Butler and Jonny Weston come out of the surfOn the morning of December 19, 1994, surfers gathered on the beach and high bluffs overlooking a spot known as Mavericks.

A reef brake half a mile off the Northern California coast at Half Moon Bay, Mavericks has some of the largest waves anywhere in the world. Conditions that morning were just right for monster waves.

A 16-year-old kid named Jay Moriarity, who had only surfed Mavericks a few times, was the youngest person in the water. When the biggest wave of the morning rumbled in, the kid paddled hard and got to his feet.

Wind caught his board, flipping him up and over, then dumping him the equivalent of five stories as tons of water crashed down on top of him. In a boat nearby, photographer Bob Barbour captured this on film, thinking he was witnessing the death of a very young surfer.

A half-minute later, Moriarity emerged from the sea foam, swam to the boat and asked for a replacement surfboard for his broken one. He paddled back out to ride again.

(You can see this wipeout on YouTube.)

That photo of the greatest wipeout in the sport’s history not only put Moriarity on the cover of Surfer magazine, it made him a legend in the surfing community. If ever there was a Hollywood moment, this was it.

Chasing Mavericks stars Gerard Butler and Jonny Weston relax on a beachNow Hollywood has returned the favor. “Chasing Mavericks” is a movie built around that moment.

Not that its filmmakers aren’t willing to tinker with the story a bit. There are issues with Jay’s best friend, a local bully, his often fired mom and an abrupt death. These may or may not reflect the real Jay Moriarity’s story but they certainly come from the Hollywood coming-of-age playbook and the movie blows them out of proportion.

Meanwhile the guts of the story, while true enough to Jay’s short life, come from “The Karate Kid” playbook where an older mentor teaches the young kid how to surf Marvericks, using unconventional methods and becoming a father figure to a young man whose own father has left the family.

Any really fine movie with an unusual background — old sports heroes (“Field of Dreams”), wine appreciation (“Sideways”) — is never about those things but rather its characters. And at first, “Chasing Mavericks” feels loaded with characters in the cozy beach community of Santa Cruz.

Along with young Jay (newcomer Jonny Weston, a bright actor who looks too old for a 16-year-old) and his mentor, Rick Hesson, called Frosty (Gerard Butler), you have Jay’s alcoholic mom (Elisabeth Shue), Frosty’s understanding but not always sympathetic surf widow (Abigail Spencer), Jay’s crush (Leven Rambin), a best bud (Devin Crittenden) and a drug dealer and all-around-bad dude (Taylor Handley).

Halting story lines are attached to all these characters but few pay off other than the core figures of Jay and Frosty. The coach is portrayed as ever impatient with his young protege while Jay comes off as an apt pupil, all too eager to learn.

Chasing Mavericks' Gerard Butler offers encouragement to Jonny WestonThe real Jay Moriarity served as such an inspiration to his home town that after he drowned in a diving accident the local motto became “Live Like Jay.” He was such a friendly kid who embraced life and many sports with such passion that for many he summed up the town’s attitude toward life.

This the film fails to capture somehow. The relationship between Jay and Frosty comes through clearly enough but you never get any sense of the impact the kid had on the town.

There’s a sketchiness in his relationships with everyone else especially his mother who since she is played by an Oscar-winning actress was certainly ripe for a more dramatic development than the few tossed-off scenes.

This carries on throughout the movie. Enough time is certainly spent developing his love for an “older” schoolmate but it never transcends puppy-love.

Kario Salem’s screenplay (from a story from two of the film’s producers, Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper) focuses perhaps too much on the Jay-Frosty dynamics and not enough on its other characters.

Otherwise one suspects (but I claim no knowledge) that the major problem lies in the fact the film has two directors.

The original director, Curtis Hanson, has demonstrated throughout his impressive career as a writer and director an ability to penetrate many endeavors from rap music (“8 Mile”) and financial institutions (“Too Big to Fail”) to cops (“L.A. Confidential”) and academia (“Wonder Boys”) to tell very human stories.

Hanson became so seriously ill during production though that Michael Apted took over for him. These are such fine directors that one can easily imagine this film, under the guidance of one of them, might have come out much differently.

A director, especially one who is a writer, does so many things big and small in shooting a screenplay and seeing it through post-production that to lose that guidance with any mid-stream change thoroughly disrupts a production.

Again this is all guess work but the final result is a pretty good sports tale yet the human element is just barely there. Story lines need more fleshing out and characters greater depth.

The film is probably already too long, yet all these subplots feel truncated with key events left out.

The film is beautifully shot with all the surfing scenes brilliantly rendered thanks to cinematographer Bill Pope and water-photography director Phillip Boston, who coordinated the film’s many ocean stuntmen and surfers.

(Grant Washburn, a surfer and editor who made a PBS doc on Mavericks, helped edit the film’s water scenes.)

And Santa Cruz looks so great the town can expect an increase in tourism if not a population increase.

A final note: It saddens me a great deal that this is undoubtedly Curtis Hanson’s last film. Like many critics and film journalists, I became friendly with Hanson over the years. One couldn’t help running into him around town especially at movie screenings.

He not only began by writing film commentary himself but like all of us he is s a real film buff. He served as chairman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and could often be found hanging out at Academy or UCLA screenings of old movies he loved so dearly.

But illness had permanently sidelined him.

He had an outstanding career as writer (“Never Cry Wolf,” “White Dog,” “The Silent Partner”) before turning to directing. He won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for his break-through film, “L.A. Confidential,” which received nine Oscar noms including three for Hanson.

Curtis, I salute you. You are one of Hollywood’s leading citizens.

Opens: October 26, 2012 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Fox 2000 Pictures and Walden Media present a GranVia/Deuce Three production
Cast: Gerald Butler, Jonny Weston, Elisabeth Shue, Abigail Spencer, Leven Rambin
Directors: Curtis Hanson, Michael Apted
Screenwriter: Kario Salem
Story by: Jim Meenaghan & Brandon Hooper
Producers: Curtis Hanson, Mark Johnson, Brandon Hooper, Jim Meenaghan
Executive producers: Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Georgia Kacandes, David Weil
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Ida Random
Visual effects supervisor: Scott E. Anderson
Music: Chad Fischer
Costume designer: Sophie De Rakoff
Editor: John Gilbert
PG rating, 116 minutes