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updated: 10/25/2012 11:23 AM

Surfing biopic waters down tragic real-life story

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  • Veteran surfer Frosty (Gerard Butler) trains a troubled teenager (Jonny Weston) to challenge a legendary monster wave in "Chasing Mavericks."

    Veteran surfer Frosty (Gerard Butler) trains a troubled teenager (Jonny Weston) to challenge a legendary monster wave in "Chasing Mavericks."

  • Video: Chasing Mavericks trailer


"Chasing Mavericks" started out with Curtis Hanson, Oscar-winning director of "L.A. Confidential," in the director's chair, until he reportedly became ill and was replaced by Michael Apted.

I'm not sure which parts were handled by which director, but "Chasing Mavericks" comes off as a standard-issue biographical drama with all the familiar trappings of a surfing movie: spectacular footage of rolling waves accompanied by eardrum-bursting explosions of water hitting rocks, poetic waxings about the lure of the sea, and the romanticized hero worship of soul surfers.

Kario Salem's screenplay fulfills all the conventional expectations of surfing dramas, supplemented by loads of domestic angst and a none-too-subtle subplot involving the detrimental effect that absentee fathers have on their sons.

"Chasing Mavericks" tells the story of the brief life of Jay Moriarty, a Santa Cruz boy who became a surfing legend even before his death by drowning while diving in the Indian Ocean during 2001.

He was 22.

In his memory, an annual big wave surfing event -- part of the Big Wave World Tour -- is called the Jay at Mavericks Big Wave Invitational. There's also the annual Jay Moriarty Paddle Race in Santa Cruz.

Moriarty became an international, unofficial ambassador of surfing at age 16 when a photographer snapped his spectacular wipeout at Mavericks and it made the cover of Surfer magazine.

This glorious moment is also captured in "Chasing Mavericks," a Hollywoodized version of Moriarty's story, functioning as a sort of "Karate Kid" transplant.

Instead of karate, it's surfing. Instead of mentor Mr. Miyagi, we have veteran surfer Frosty Hesson. Instead of blonde girlfriend Elisabeth Shue, we've got blonde girlfriend Leven Rambin. (Shue plays Jay's mom here.) Instead of a karate-chopping bully, we have a surfing bully.

"Chasing Mavericks" begins with a very young Jay being fascinated with the way the ocean waves hit the shore. When one hits him, he nearly drowns. But a nearby surfer pulls him to safety.

He turns out to be Frosty Hesson, played by Gerard Butler, who continues to prove he can play just about any role ever written for a guy, and maybe then some.

Seven years later, little Jay is played by Jonny Weston as a fresh-faced teen struggling with school, his place in the world, money and mostly his single mom, Kristy (Shue). She is despondent and unable to focus on life since her husband left, leaving only a letter that Jay has refused to open.

Frosty lives across the street from Jay, and becomes a father figure for the lad as he grows and becomes fascinated with conquering the killer waves up at Mavericks.

At first, Frosty refuses to coach Jay because he fears the student cannot handle the waves. But his patient, seemingly perfect wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer) advises him to train Jay, for she says that he will undoubtedly go out and try to surf at Mavericks alone.

Meanwhile at school, Jay is highly attracted to an older classmate, Kim (Rambin), who really likes the sweet, salubrious surfer, but won't acknowledge his existence in public for fear of peer blowback.

"Chasing Mavericks" has the feel of a story too aware of its own dramatic shortcomings, so it loads up on conflicts. In addition to being afraid to open Dad's letter, Jay must deal with a stereotypical beach bully (Taylor Handley) who calls him "Little Trash," and with a betraying best friend (Devin Crittenden), and with Kim's public rejections, and with Mom's economic crisis, and eventually with Frosty's own personal losses.

One more thing. "Chasing Mavericks" overdoses on slow motion footage to the point it becomes belabored, stilted and annoying. Slow-motion should be used sparingly, like bullet-time effects in "The Matrix," to preserve its dramatic impact.

Here, "Chasing Mavericks" just waters it down.

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