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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, April 24, 2014

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Gerard Butler stars in "Chasing Mavericks."
Gerard Butler stars in "Chasing Mavericks."

"Chasing Mavericks" hits viewers with wave of boredom

I've never been surfing (Wisconsin has a limited supply of gnarly waves), but it seems like an awesome adrenaline rush. Balancing yourself physically and mentally while flying down a torrent of water on a chunk of polystyrene seems pretty terrific. Plus, if you get tired of falling off your board and getting tossed around by waves, you can just kill some time on the warm and sandy beach, and soak in the beautiful scenery.

So why in the name of Laird Hamilton is "Chasing Mavericks" so boring? It's the sleepiest on-screen presentation of an extreme sport possible, riding a current of bland characters and dull inspirational drama without a hint of what makes surfing or the surfing lifestyle alluring.

The film follows real-life surfing legend Jay Moriarity (newcomer Jonny Weston). Before he became hero, though, he was just another high school student, coping with an emotionally absent mother (Elisabeth Shue), memories of his father who abandoned them and an awkward crush on his childhood sweetheart ("The Hunger Games"' District 1 tribute Leven Rambin).

Life gets more exciting for Jay, though, when he discovers the famous Mavericks surf break in Northern California and a band of surfing veterans tackling its mammoth waves. One of the local legends, Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), decides to take Jay under his wing and help him muster up the skills and mental preparation to ride Mavericks' dangerous waves.

Of course, the two form a bond that goes beyond the beach. Jay gains the father figure that he never had at home and learns to move on from his real father's abandonment; Frosty learns how to get closer to his own children. It's all very sweet and nice and decently acted ... and ridiculously bland. Frosty's life lessons are all generic inspirational movie hokum (conquering fears, etc.), and the story goes nowhere you couldn't predict from reading a Wikipedia summary.

There are plenty of subplots flooding "Chasing Mavericks"' running time, but none of them add much color to the proceedings. Shue's mother drama is dull and cliché. The relationship between Jay and his girlfriend is bland and lacks chemistry. A subplot involving Jay's best friend/co-worker is barely developed enough to make an impression.

And of course there are bullies (led by Taylor Handley) because any film about a high school student needs screenwriting 101 bullies. They just kind of show up in Kario Salem’s screenplay whenever it needs more undercooked drama, and its resolution is fittingly unsatisfying.

These bland story arcs wouldn’t be as snooze-worthy if directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted (Apted took over at the last minute when Hanson became ill) gave "ChasingMavericks" any energy whatsoever. Where’s the youthful vigor? Where’s the excitement? Where’s the colorful coast setting? Instead, the whole film feels like a side project, something done to pass the time rather than something the Oscar-winning Hanson and veteran Apted were really motivated to make (despite Hanson’s role as a producer).

The only time they bring some fun to the screen is when Jay and company hit the waves. The surfing sequences look epic and fun, and they provide the best energy and drama in the entire film. For those few scenes out on the ocean, "Chasing Mavericks" comes alive.

It's hard to talk about "Chasing Mavericks" without also addressing its abrupt bombshell of an ending. This will probably be a spoiler for non-surfing junkies, but the real-life Jay Moriarity tragically died in 2001 during a driving trip in the Maldives. Salem's screenplay attempts to work this into the film, but it's shoehorned in with an awkward "oh by the way" coda at the very end. Plus, since it comes so suddenly after the goal the movie has been working toward, the ending feels far more tragic than life-affirming and inspirational.

So yeah, "Chasing Mavericks" is a bit of a wipeout. The surfing action might provide a little fun, but there are plenty of better films – namely Stacy Peralta's great documentary "Riding Giants" – that can provide the same rush with almost none of the yawning.

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