JAY MORIARTY drowned in 2001 off the coast of the Maldives at age 22—but before he died, he surfed a really big wave on California's coast, north of his home in Santa Cruz. That wave break, named Mavericks, was treated as myth by surfers for years, but has recently become a famous and (for some) deadly surfing destination, offering the highest crests in California due to the unusual rock formation beneath the water's surface. This natural phenomenon isn't explained very clearly in Chasing Mavericks, the soapy, surprisingly glum biopic about Moriarty and his quest to surf Mavericks. For a movie about a guy surfing, there's an awful lot of him not surfing.
Moriarty (Jonny Weston) has trouble at home. Dad's gone and mom (Elisabeth Shue) is a drunk who can't hold down a job. The teen spends most of his time bugging the surfer dude named Frosty (Gerard Butler) who lives across the street. Frosty agrees to train Moriarty to ride the giant wave, but instead of showing us lots of cool surfing, Chasing Mavericks focuses on tedious paddle drills, underwater breath-holding exercises, and lots and lots of mental preparation. Frosty even has the kid write a bunch of essays before he lets him anywhere near Mavericks.
Moriarty does, of course, eventually surf Mavericks, and the surfing footage is unquestionably the highlight of the lengthy movie. Had Mavericks been reined in to tighten its focus on the action, this could have been a fun little sports biopic. As it is, the movie meanders—perhaps a symptom of having two directors (Michael Apted took over when Curtis Hanson became too ill to finish). A bunch of sad stuff happens, not just to Moriarty, whose best friend falls into drug dealing and whose lifelong crush ignores him at school, but to Frosty and his long-suffering wife Brenda (the impossibly lovely Abigail Spencer). You see, Frosty is kind of a bad dad—or at least a disinterested one—to his own kids. By becoming a father figure to Moriarty, he learns how to be a father for real. This is the sort of surfing-is-a-metaphor-for-life mush that Chasing Mavericks preoccupies itself with.