Learning Curve, by David Bax
While Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas is the most notable new release of the weekend, there’s another director collaboration coasting into theaters. Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted have both made quite good and quite bad films in the past. Chasing Mavericks (most of which Hanson helmed until he fell ill and Apted took over) will likely rank near the bottom of both of their lists of achievements.
Chasing Mavericks is the story of 3 months in the life of Jay Moriarity, the real-life professional surfer. Specifically, this is about the time fifteen-year-old Jay supposedly spent learning how to surf humongous, “maverick” waves from his older and more experienced surfer neighbor, Frosty, played by Gerard Butler. In addition to surfing, other lessons include Frosty learning how to be a father; Jay learning how to forgive his absent dad; Elisabeth Shue (as Jay’s mom) learning how to not drink so much; and Jay’s female classmate (Leven Rambin) learning that unpopular boys are also dating options. Wikipedia does not say if all that happened in real life, though.
Hanson and Apted can’t truly be said to bear the fault of the film’s failures. Their direction is, for the most part, functional and adequate, if uninspired. The worst elements are rooted in the screenplay by Kario Salem (from a story by Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper). The high school bully’s taunts are straight out of after school specials and characters are constantly realizing tidy moral nuggets and speaking them out loud.
Such overwriting is especially disappointing in a film about a subject as visually sumptuous as surfing. While cinematographer Bill Pope (the Matrix films) captures many gorgeous big screen shots of an ocean that is equal parts inviting and terrifying, it’s in the simple logistics of the sport that Hanson and Apted – along with editor John Gilbert (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) – fall short. Whereas Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, despite containing relatively few actual scenes of surfing, was able to clearly translate the fundamentals, Chasing Mavericks is often muddied in its presentation of how surfing actually works.
Since the film is based on true events, it’s hard to know what might be a spoiler but, just in case, spoilers lie ahead in this paragraph. Seven years after the events depicted in the movie, Jay Moriarity – at the age of 22 and world-famous in the community – drowned. That fact makes the film’s focus on the developing of his strength and the ability to hold his breath for minutes on end feel more than a little creepy. More problematic, though, is that we get very little of the essence of the character. While I’m certain there was much about the real Moriarity that made his short time on the earth more than worthwhile, the movie focuses so much on the other characters that we don’t get any sense of it. Even if it’s obvious that the intention was to illustrate how Jay’s presence changed these people, the movie is unable to follow through. Jay is simply a non-character.
One element that does ring true is the depiction of a socially ostracized young man. Jay is a physical and athletically talented kid so he is clearly not a member of the nerd group. Yet his shyness and naivete keep him out of the alpha, popular group too. And his innate goodness keeps him away from the delinquents. His inability to fit in anywhere is well-colored and relatable. It’s the part where he’s supposed to find peace on the waves that doesn’t translate.
Taking place as the film does around 1994, the soundtrack is full of some of the better end of alt-rock hits from the time. While The Offspring’s “Keep ‘Em Separated” has not aged well, recognizable tracks from the likes of Mazzy Star and the Butthole Surfers (among others) are well-employed. Given the self-important and choppy mess that surrounds these tunes, though, it’s probably best to skip Chasing Mavericks and just listen to your old CD’s instead.