It’s padded, corny, and terrific. Chasing Mavericks, begun by the great but ailing Curtis (8 Mile) Hanson but finished by the workmanlike documentarian Michael Apted, feels overloaded with subplots, romantic entanglements, melodramatic developments, and abandonment issues. But it still manages to move us in the end, with lots of credit going inevitably to the sheer majesty of human beings riding monster tubes. Based on the true story of Jay Moriarity — a respected surfer well-known to people in this town’s considerable wave-riding community — the whole cinematic package feels at times like a cross between The Karate Kid and 1960s exploitation films like Ride the Wild Surf. But then the waves come up, and the mix of legend, soap opera, and spectacle overwhelms the wipeout we reasonably expect.
It doesn’t hurt that surfing is such a cinematic sport and that most filmmakers have presented it either as raw documentary or in campy Beach Blanket Bingo–style contexts. (Has there ever been a great surfer film? Why not? Discuss.) This ungreat movie makes the obvious work with Gerard Butler playing Frosty, a middle-aged married man privy to the big secret that was Mavericks, a NorCal surf spot jealously guarded by its regulars. Self-absorbed and secretive, Frosty meets Jay (Jonny Weston), and their guru/protégé relationship gives the film a nice foil to more subtle questions about the darker side of big-wave obsessions. A host of mom, girlfriend, and absent-daddy stories somehow add poignancy to Jay’s story, and the final moments of the film avoid sanctifications, barely. Old surfers at the screening I attended cheered lustily.
Melodrama, silly as its pleasures prove, makes a surprisingly good match for the pounding surf. Still, the film holds out a surprisingly moralistic view: People who lose themselves in big waves seem heroic, it says, but in the end they are just as lost as the rest of us. Bummer.