An odd-couple pairing of low-key, self-effacing musician and hack, obnoxiously effusive method actor, Surrogate Valentine is something of a buddy-road-trip movie as well as a sliver of a romance. But nothing’s too emphatic in Dave Boyle’s film, whose tone mirrors the relaxed vibe of its star, singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura, here playing a version of himself. As struggling artists will, Goh is forced to take on odd assignments to pay the bills, and when a movie producer friend offers him a gig as a technical advisor on a film, he reluctantly accepts. What the job entails is teaching a won’t-shut-up television star to play guitar for his role in the project and most of the film follows the pair as they shuttle between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle for several of Noh’s gigs.
A somewhat larger-than-life presence in a film that’s otherwise pitched at the level of the quotidian, Danny Turner (Chadd Stoops) is given to spontaneous demonstrations of his actorly ability or, in a running gag, signing autographs for the random people who recognize him for his role as a physician in a television soap. (His signature phrase, which he gleefully repeats for anyone who asks, is “The doctor is in!”) Stoops’s broad turn becomes slightly more irritating than humorous, though it’s kept in check by the deadpan tone of the rest of the film, a mood reflected by the handsomely lensed, largely fixed-take black-and-white framings.
But ultimately, despite some winning moments of lo-fi humor and some inspired set pieces (a trip to a record producer’s pad in which he shows off his gun collection much to Goh’s dismay and Danny’s delight), there’s simply not enough here to carry a feature film—even one that tops out at 75 minutes. The relationship between the two leads neither deteriorates nor seriously improves and last-minute romantic developments (Danny gives in to his impulse to settle down, Goh pursues a long-time platonic friend) don’t so much as give shape to the narrative as play as perfunctory gestures of closure. Almost self-consciously unprepossessing, Surrogate Valentine isn’t a movie that’s easy to dislike, but it’s also one that’s difficult to fully embrace, a thin outline of a film in need of some considerable fleshing out.