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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Chasing Mavericks


CHASING MAVERICKS (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Curtis Hanson/Michael Apted, 2012

The main problem with Chasing Mavericks — a generally well-done bio-movie about California surfer Jay Moriarity, who became a legend at 16 — is that the waves have more charisma than the leading man.

Jonny Weston, who plays Moriarity. has curly-frizzy blonde locks and a ripped torso and he even does most of his own surfing. But he also has amiable but vacuous pretty boy looks that suggest blonde actors like Troy Donahue or Christopher Atkins  — that summon up less a great, driven surfer on a date with destiny, than a male model with a date at the Santa Monica pier. I’ve seen Weston at least one other time recently, in the lousy behind-the scenes porno industry movie About Cherry,  but I can barely remember what he did in it.

I can and will remember him in Chasing Mavericks. But that’s mostly because of his role, and because he’s playing, at least part of the time,  with those incredible waves — the awesome rolling towers of water and spray and curling doom that better men (and women) than I am, conquer or fall before: especially the 50-foot-high titans called The Mavericks (off Half Moon Bay), that the real-life Jay Moriarity managed to ride, or get wiped out by (as in the cover photo for Surfer Magazine that made him famous),

The movie is about how legend Jay fell in love with the ocean, and how the ocean swept him away.  It’s a bravura story. We first see Jay at 9 (played by Cooper Timberline). He tries to navigate some heavy waves and nearly gets smashed on the rocks, and he meets his eventual mentor/teacher Frosty Hesson (played with lots of surly, intent looks and multi-colored surfboards by Gerard Butler, who also helped produce). Frosty saves Jay from that first smash-up. He also knows the location of the seemingly mythical Mavericks, and Jay follows him (on the roof of Frosty’s van), to discover them for himself and get to ride them someday. Frosty, recognizing a surfer obsessed, decides to save him again, by teaching him the way of the surf: physical, dietetic, athletic and spiritual.

This thorough, almost priestly,  preparation, is also observed by the rest of a generally good ensemble: Jay’s troubled, often frazzled, mom Kristy (Elisabeth Shue, looking great in a  frayed role), Frosty’s sprightly, self-sacrificing wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer), assorted beach bullies and fellow surfers, and the blonde Kim (Leven Rambin), Jay’s soul and inspiration, He rises; the waves fall. It’s a true story, and a lot of it probably happened, but still, when you look at Weston here, you almost keep expecting Paul Lynde to come running up the beach, with a movie contract. Could the real Moriarity have seemed so amiable and low voltage? But that’s the way our movies, all too often, go.

Chasing Mavericks had two very good directors working on it: Curtis Hanson (who made the modern neo-noir classic L. A. Confidential) and Michael Apted — who does the wonderful British “Up” documentary series, and who finished up the film when Hanson had health problems. They both do a pretty good job here, though Hanson obviously wanted something more, and though there was probably an inevitable fracturing of the show’s style.

Am I wrong to complain about too much reliance here on photogenic concerns, especially for movie stars? Surfing is, after all, one of the most photogenic of all sports. There’s even one surfing, photogenically cast  movie (not counting Bruce Brown’s documentaries), that I really love: John Milius’ elegiac 1978 Big Wednesday, which co-starred Jan-Michael Vincent, Gary Busey and William Katt as three surfer buddies who go their separate ways, but meet up again to ride the big waves on Big Wednesday together. (Greg MacGillivray produced the excellent surfing footage.) That movie triumphs over everything, including what seem to be clichés. One reason: Big Wednesday balances its drama and the knockout oceanic vistas backdropping it.

Jay Moriarity is a great movie subject, and  Chasing Mavericks actually has a story with the potential to match Milius — or almost match him. But the waves take over. They curl, they crash. They tower up toward the sun and clouds. There’s just no upstaging them.

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And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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~ David Simon