Surfer Jay Moriarty, who died in a diving accident the day before his 23rd birthday, achieved fame by surfing Mavericks, a famously forbidding California surfing spot. There’s no doubt a fascinating story in that, about the drive and commitment it would take a kid to achieve such a feat at such a young age. It’s unlikely, however, that it resembles The Karate Kid as closely as Chasing Mavericks, a family-friendly retelling of Moriarty’s life. Gerard Butler co-stars as Frosty Hesson, Moriarty’s mentor, portrayed here as a bearded, crusty surf-Miyagi to Jonny Weston’s worshipful Daniel-san. The son of an absentee dad and a mother (Elisabeth Shue) who spends half her time in an alcoholic fugue, Weston worships Butler, a lifelong surf enthusiast who lives next door. Having lost his parents when he was young, Butler has a hard time relating to kids, whether they’re his own, or neighbors eager to learn the ways of the surf. But over the course of the film, he learns to open up his heart a bit.
Or something. Chasing Mavericks has two credited directors: Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted. Apted assumed directing duties after health issues sidelined Hanson, but that only partly explains the film’s tattered nature. Most of the relationships—even the central one between Weston and Butler—play as half-developed, and there are several subplots so clouded in vagaries that they make little sense, including Weston’s friend’s growing drug habit, the taunts of some bullying rivals, and a tenuous romance between Weston and neighbor Leven Rambin. It doesn’t help that the characters have so little to them. Weston plays Moriarty as such an unfailingly good, temptation-free kid that he only needs a halo floating above his pre-Raphaelite curls to complete the picture.
Some exciting surfing sequences would let audiences forgive a lot of this, but while Chasing Mavericks has a couple of eye-catching moments, it doles them out stingily. Instead, it offers scenes where Butler tasks Weston with writing an essay in preparation for taking on the big wave, or makes him clean up his yard, or forces him to wax cars. (Oops. Wrong movie.) All that time might have been better spent explaining the mechanics of surfing, or even the appeal of the sport and the culture around it. Maybe Chasing Mavericks assumes other surfing movies have done that work for it. It certainly counts on other movies for what it does choose to include.