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Movie Review: Baywatch

TV adaptation is a slo-mo jog to nowhere.

Review by Brandon Wolfe

For a television series that was, at the peak of its heyday, the most popular show in the world, Baywatch has had a surprisingly shallow cultural footprint. Maybe it’s not that surprising. It was a show built around watching Pamela Anderson and other beach beauties (and David Hasselhoff, if you’re into the carpet-chest thing) run around a beach in slow motion. That slo-mo running, with the accompanying heaving bosoms jutting out of tight red one-pieces, is almost certainly the only thing anyone has retained of Baywatch, whether they were an avid viewer or not. Perhaps that’s all there ever was to retain.

Given the source material’s paucity of substance, the creators of the new Baywatch movie have decided to go the same spoof route that the film version of 21 Jump Street rode to great success. That was another show that burned bright in its day, but left little impression, its central premise and the Johnny Depp factor being all that stuck in the mind. A film that ribs Baywatch for its exploitative inanity could work, in the same theoretical way that anything could work. But the Baywatch movie doesn’t work, largely because it doesn’t commit to what it alleges to do. It doesn’t mine Baywatch’s absurdity nearly enough, doesn’t find a purpose to justify its existence.

In Emerald Bay, Florida, Lt. Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson, achieving peak ubiquity) heads an elite squad of lifeguards. Mitch is a consummate professional, but is also gregarious and beloved by the entire beach community. With tryouts for new recruits about to commence, Mitch and his team, including Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) and C.J. Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), begin to look over the new crop of potential lifesavers, most of which are eager and hungry for the gig, like comely Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) and lumpy Ronnie (Jon Bass). But there’s also the presence of Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a cynical himbo and disgraced two-time Olympic gold medal winner who is being forced on Mitch’s team as part of his community service and as a PR stunt. Brody immediately gets on Mitch’s bad side, something that doesn’t seem especially easy to do. He doesn’t want to be there and cares little about teamwork. I wonder if he’ll learn to be a team player.

Baywatch is clearly following 21 Jump Street’s playbook, but it skipped some key pages. What directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller did with that film was to take its conceit—undercover cops posing as high schoolers—to its logical extremes, while also finding something relevant to say about contemporary high-school culture. Oh, and it was also screamingly funny. Baywatch keeps bumping up against a fun show-skewering idea, that these lifeguards are operating as actual law enforcement, but it stubbornly refuses to run with it. Brody and some tertiary characters will occasionally point out the ridiculousness of the investigation, yet the film firmly posits Mitch and his crew as righteous underdogs who can’t get any respect from higher authority rather than beautiful fools hopelessly out of their element. In other words, it basically plays Baywatch straight. Even the film’s villain (Priyanka Chopra), a socialite running a drug-smuggling operation, isn’t part of the joke. There really isn’t a joke. This movie’s satire of Baywatch is sticking lots of penis jokes into Baywatch.

Johnson, unsurprisingly, is the best thing here, because he’s the best thing in most things he does. His lovable-lug charisma burns brightly here, and he manages to be funny even though the movie won’t meet him halfway (he’s saddled with a lame running gag of calling Brody a series of ‘90s-boy-band nicknames, but plays the hand he was dealt like a pro). Essentially, any joy you receive from Baywatch will almost certainly come from him, because there’s not a lot else here. Continuing the theme of mimicking 21 Jump Street, Efron has clearly been on a mission of late to refashion himself in the same hot-dude-goes-wacky mold that Channing Tatum reinvented himself with in that film. But Tatum was a revelation, a brilliantly funny comedic actor emerging from those chiseled abdominals. Efron has some comedic skill to be sure, but nothing on par with what Tatum has displayed. He’s a beefcake trying to be funny and doing alright with it, where Tatum simply is funny.

Despite the larger cast, Baywatch is essentially as much of a two-hander as Jump Street, since Johnson and Efron are pretty much the whole show. The only real comedic support comes from newcomer Bass, whose Ronnie is the lone schlub in a gaggle of Adonises. Yet Bass, with his doughy body and Butt-Head leer, is the working definition of trying too hard. He flails about ineffectually and even gets a painfully zany dance number, but nothing he does lands with anything other than a thud. He’s one of those guys you puzzle over trying to understand how he managed to get as far as he has. As for the female cast, forget about it. Baywatch sees them all as every bit the cheesecake ornamentation that the show did. I can’t recall any of them even being given a joke, and each of them vanishes from the film for long stretches at a time.

It’s difficult to summon even a mild recommendation for Baywatch. There’s Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Efron, but they are both playing to their established types, and since each actor is so prominent, you can see them play these types in other things several times a year. Because the film lacks a viable comedic/satiric engine, you’re left with gags recycled from other films (the zipper sequence from There’s Something About Mary gets a remix here). It even biffs its references to the show with a strange and confusing meta approach. And, despite the R rating, the titillation factor is no higher here than in any given episode of the TV Baywatch. The lifeguards can remain on their tower because this one is dead in the water.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.


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