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Chasing Mavericks

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'Chasing Mavericks': Wipeout
By Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies

Everybody involving in the making of "Chasing Mavericks" swore this surfing film would be different. No one-armed surfer saints, no bikinied gidgets and no Hollywood hunks posed in front of fake backdrops. This tribute to super-surfer Jay Moriarity, dead in a diving accident at 22, promised more than a formulaic narrative that would paddle a flat story toward climactic big waves, the moment when a community of awestruck landlubbers line up to gape. Well, good intentions don't hang ten: Except for glimpses of the ferocious majesty of five-story waves, "Chasing Mavericks" is a total wipeout.

Search: More on surfing movies | More on Gerard Butler

You see it coming from the get-go: With biblical sonorousness, Gerard Butler voice-overs, "We all come from the sea ... not all of us are of the sea." That popcorn poetry sets us up for a stilted shoreside interlude with 8-year-old Jay counting ocean waves, his gaze as faux-rapt as any wide-eyed Disney tot. While rescuing a puppy (property of the girl who will grow up to become "the love of his life"), Jay gets snatched into the rocky surf by a hungry wave. Drowning's imminent. Then a hand reaches down to pull the boy out. So symbolically emphatic is that helping hand, it might be a sea god rescuing one of his own. Or veteran surfer Frosty Hesson (Butler), later to father and train teenage Jay, preparing the boy for life and the mythic waves they call mavericks. Hear those clicking sounds? That's formula firing up.

What follows, all too obviously, is mutual parenting: Via cue-card dialogue -- voiced by surfer dude's saintly wife -- we learn that Frosty, stuck in his own adolescence, wrestles with fatherhood. Jay's dad has abandoned him and his slacker mom (Elisabeth Shue) is framed as another example of arrested development. Eager to play Karate Kid to Frosty's Mr. Miyagi, Jay still maintains a preternaturally adult attitude when he's tested by nonexistent home life, drug-dealing best friend, and the kid assigned by the script to hate on him for no apparent reason.

It's shocking how hokey and banal this movie is. Every character signals stereotype; every word, expression, behavioral trope looks like high school playacting. None of the Big Moments possess any emotional punch, not even a middle-of-the-ocean suicide intervention, which ought to be fraught with terror, love, grief, gut-wrenching passion. Things happen because that's the dumb way they were written, not because there's any credible growth in feeling or action driving the story forward. When Jay's blond crush crashes in out of a dark and rain-swept night, looking like all hell has broken loose, you're primed to expect nothing less than rape or alien invasion. But, no, this overwrought entrance heralds an unsurprising declaration of puppy love that simply needed to be plugged in so that Jay's girl could stand beside Jay's "dad" when our cherubic hero finally chases those fabled mavericks.

A buff Cupid, newcomer Weston sports a mop of sun-kissed curls as gorgeous as William Katt's in "Big Wednesday," John Milius' 1978 surfer flick. His grasp of acting is limited to presenting his pretty face to the camera, to project blue-eyed sweetness and aspiration. Jay Moriarity was famous for how joyously he scaled mountainous waves. Weston is too small a personality, too cute, to convey the soul-deep delight of leaning into towering arches of water as they fall.

Butler sports an equally attractive tousled mane, but it can't compensate for his one-note performance -- or the way he rolls bad dialogue around in his mouth like Scottish sweetmeats. You don't believe for a moment that this narcissistic actor cares a farthing for his golden boy, or his long-suffering wife. We're assured that both Weston and Butler surfed for real, so much so that Butler was dangerously buried under a set of four huge waves. But neither looks particularly at home in the sea. Hanging out with surfing greats Zach Wormhoudt, Greg Long, Peter Mel, Butler's body language screams amateur.

"Chasing Mavericks" never convincingly taps into the unique camaraderie and machismo that informs surfer communities and its aquatic photography doesn't measure up to many a surfing documentary. At the end, the real Jay Moriarity turns his dark eyes to the camera, and you see what "Chasing Mavericks" missed entirely: the transfiguring energy that animated this remarkable child of the sea.

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Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.

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