Movie Review

‘Chasing Mavericks’ is a by-the-numbers tribute

Gerard Butler (left) and Jonny Weston in a scene from “Chasing Mavericks.”
John P. Johnson/20th Century Fox
Gerard Butler (left) and Jonny Weston in a scene from “Chasing Mavericks.”

I’m guessing the draw for “Chasing Mavericks” is the surfing. Professionals are calling the water scenes the real thing. It’s unclear where they stand on the rest of the movie. Hungering for competently photographed, orchestrated, and edited surfing shots is one thing. Most movies chop unevenly between real actors and their stunt doubles, between handsome long shots and unconvincing close-ups. When “Chasing Mavericks” cuts away to a concerned or elated reaction, it’s usually after a long shot of a real body on a board on a wave.

But in order to arrive at a moment like that you have to put up with a family movie of aggravating blandness. You have to really believe in messianic innocence and by-the-numbers screenwriting. “Chasing Mavericks” is a fond tribute to the perseverance of the actual surfer Jay Moriarty, who, at 16, scaled a 50-foot wave — a maverick — off the coast of Santa Cruz, Calif., and lived to retrieve his board and go right after another.

It’s a tribute rigged for cheers and tears. I mean, I welled up at least once: There’s a touching moment in which Jay, who’s played by Jonny Weston, hugs his mother, who’s played as pure sunshine by Elisabeth Shue. It’s Jay’s birthday, and Mom turns out to have her act more together than I previously thought, returning a few of the many favors he’s done for her over the years (he’s her alarm, her cook, and her ATM). But getting misty at a movie like this doesn’t mean much. It’s involuntary. When someone stomps on your foot, you yell.

John P. Johnson/20th Century Fox
Gerard Butler as Frosty Hesson and Jonny Weston as Jay Moriarity in “Chasing Mavericks.”

Jay wants to ride a maverick, and for education turns to a crusty ex-surfer named Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler). The movie gives Jay a lovely blonde (Leven Rambin) to chase and a bully (Taylor Handley) to chase him. The chasing of the mavericks, meanwhile, will have to wait for Jay to do a lot of training, not open an envelope from his father, and negotiate his relationship with this blustery paternal surrogate.

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Who could want a movie this corny? Who could want it from Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson? They’re sharing directing credit, and what they’ve come up with is curiously generic. You can find it by the can in the “feel good” aisle. The best aspects of Apted (patient observation) appear to have canceled the best of Hanson (rigorous storytelling).

“Chasing Mavericks” feels like a lot of underdog sports movies — “Rocky,” “The Karate Kid,” “Rudy,” “Million Dollar Baby.” But it doesn’t work you up in any sustainable way. Moriarty died in a diving accident when he was 22, and the movie wants to consecrate him. Characters say things to Jay like, “You only see the good in things” and “Not everyone can be as perfect as you.” The only person who’s comparatively perfect is Mrs. Frosty, which you don’t mind because Abigail Spencer pretty much plays the Loving Wife to radiant perfection.

As the Mr. Miyagi in this scenario, Butler is a dudely lug with great hair and a himbo residue. You know Frosty’s strength is a sham and that Jay will eventually have to be strong for him. Weston’s made fewer movies and isn’t yet much of an actor — he has the straw hair, sparkling eyes, and the dreamy amphibiousness of William Katt and Christopher Atkins — but Weston gives the camera more than Butler usually does. These movies don’t need great acting, per se. You just need to respond to whoever’s running up that hill, the way you do with Ralph Macchio and Hilary Swank. To that end, the film’s a kind of success. Come for the surfing. Stay for the sainthood.

Wesley Morris can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.