There is no excuse for “Surfer,” an abysmally amateurish vanity production best described as a total wipeout. Produced, written, and directed by Douglas Burke, a USC physics professor who would be well-advised not to quit his day job, it has something to do with the fulminations of a pontificating spirit who is given temporary corporeality, and something else to do with a traumatized young wave-rider who’s more or less browbeaten back into hanging ten. It is the sort of movie that sustains interest from scene to scene only because you’re constantly wondering whether it could possibly get any worse. In this regard, it seldom disappoints.
The well-nigh unendurable first half focuses on a lengthy and largely one-sided conversation between Sage (Sage Burke, the filmmaker’s son), a young man who nearly drowned during a near-fatal surfing mishap a few years earlier, and Jack, the surfer’s father, who does most of the talking even though he’s very seriously dead. At least, that’s his story, and he sticks with it.
I don’t have to tell you that the multi-tasking Douglas Burke cast himself as Jack, do I?
Sage doesn’t realize the guy is his late dad after he fishes him out of the ocean — no kidding, he snares him with his fishing line — and helps him over to a quiet corner of a spectacularly beautiful yet curiously deserted beach. So Jack introduces himself: “God put me together out of squid. And electricity. So I could talk to you for a few hours.” Then, he coughs up gobs of vile black gunk. “That’s ink,” he explains. No, really.
Jack proceeds to rant and rave in the manner of a brain-addled street-corner preacher, alternating between revisionist takes on biblical luminaries (Adam, Noah, the whale that swallowed Jonah, etc.) and mystical mumbo-jumbo about the spirit-healing benefits of surfing. (“The purpose of fear is for you to find your faith!”) Periodically, he indicates that being the product of squid and electricity is not entirely comfortable: “I’m living in an iron maiden of pain, boy!” This gives the elder Burke sufficient impetus to bug his eyes, scream in agony, and make other lame attempts at Serious Acting.
Throughout most of this sound and fury, Sage wears an expression that conveys equal measures of sullenness and fear, and offers only fleeting, monosyllabic replies. He looks and sounds for all the world like an intimidated adolescent who’s meekly serving as an audience of one for a crazy drunken parent who might turn violent at any second. It’s more than a little troubling to consider the possibility that the younger Burke isn’t merely acting.
Eventually, Sage gets away from the beach and, at Jack’s direction, heads toward a top-secret military hospital. (The production values of this misbegotten movie are such that the “hospital” appears to be a cheaply retrofitted storefront office.) And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where we learn Jack’s secret — and discover that Burke won’t give up on that Serious Acting shtick even while confined to a wheelchair.
A few supporting players figure into the mix, but it would be needlessly cruel to identify them by name. You could liken their performances to the efforts of actors at a community theater, but that would be even crueler to community theater actors. Suffice it to say that “Surfer” is bearable only during a climactic montage of Sage’s wave riding at various spots around the world. He surfs and he surfs, and then he surfs some more. And then the movie simply stops. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but it is an ending. One shouldn’t disparage small blessings.