Director: Seth Gordon Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach Running Time: 119 minutes
After a near-totally negative reaction from critics to his latest film, Baywatch lead Dwayne Johnson took to Twitter to insist that “the fans’ love the movie” and that it was made for them anyway, not the critics. It is entirely possible that Baywatch fans wouldn’t set the bar too high. They did after all keep the television series on the air for 11(!) years, ogling heaving chests as inane plots about diamond smuggling surfers or other such sub-airport novel cheese sailed by mostly unnoticed. A few laughs, some beautiful people and a heavy dose of cheese would probably be enough, but Baywatch‘s biggest problem is how often it loses sight of its own stupidity, somehow buying into itself as though its stories about teamwork, overcoming selfishness and thwarting corrupt beachside property developers are actually compelling. Just like Dwayne Johnson tackles bad reviews with all the emojis, exclamation marks and critic-bashing of someone who unconvincingly insists that they aren’t mad at all, Baywatch isn’t as in on the joke as it wants you to believe it is.
Much like the equally terrible Chips movie that came out earlier this year, Baywatch is leaning hard on the 21 Jump Street model of winking television reboots. Where that movie succeeded in pairing Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as a comedic duo that were incompetent in different but equal ways, one of Baywatch’s biggest errors is its reluctance to make Johnson the butt of the joke at any point. Johnson plays Lt. Mitch Buchanan, head of the Emerald Bay’s team of lifeguards. Mitch is strong, smart, unflappable and beloved by everyone. Women want him, men want to carve his likeness into the sand. Not only is Mitch always on top of any swimmers getting into trouble, but he and his elite team are so hypercompetent that when drugs and dead bodies start appearing on the beach, they have the skills to piece things together, even when the police don’t. Everyone who calls his utter perfection into question even for a moment, or even asks why lifeguards are solving crimes or even need an elite division, is shown to be completely in the wrong, none more so than Zac Efron as Matt Brody, a disgraced Olympic swimmer who’s placed on the team for PR reasons. Brody, as the film reminds us over and over and over again, isn’t a team player, but when everyone else on the team buys so easily into worshipping Mitch and following his investigation, it seems less and less like he’s the one with the problem.
The surprising thing about Baywatch isn’t that it’s rarely funny and more that it’s rarely trying. the plot takes itself so seriously that the comedy gets sucked in like a black hole, to the point where Hannibal Burress enters the movie as a comedic ringer delivering one-liners and leaves it as the victim of a gruesome murder. There are comedic setpieces (put more simply, there are dick jokes) but they’re wedged between badly staged action sequences and the same plot points repeated on loop Priyanka Chopra does something villanous, Brody is selfish, Mitch and co. should leave police work to actual police, something we’re apparently not meant to agree with. The laughs don’t come from these lifeguards operating way above their station, they mostly come from Mitch and co insulting and humiliating Brody. We laugh with Mitch, we laugh at Brody and occasionally at newcomer Jon Bass being fat and awkward. We look at Alexandra Daddario and Kelly Rohrbach, whose fascination with Nice Guy Bass might be more insulting to women than the camera’s fascination with her body. We look for Inesh Hadera, playing Mitch’s second-in-command, frequently forgotten by the movie.
Both on screen and off, Baywatch lacks the pairings that made 21 Jump Street work. Johnson and Efron are a poorly matched double-act, with Johnson playing everything so straight and Efron seemingly concentrating less on his comedic timing and more on making sure that his veiny muscle-mass doesn’t explode mid-scene. Where Jump Street benefitted from focused vision thanks to directing team Chris Lord and Phil Miller and a script by Michael Bacall and star Jonah Hill, Baywatch gives story credit to four writers and screenplay credit to two more, leading to more plot wheel-spinning and characters intelligence levels and even their relationships to each other varying from scene to scene.
So what exactly is there for fans of Baywatch, if the movie was made for them as Johnson insists? The sex appeal? No doubt any men interested in that have been looking at set pics of Daddario and Rohrbach on Reddit for months, and it’s hard to understand anyone looking at Zac Efron’s body in this film with anything other than medical concern. And the two-hour runtime is a long time to wait to huff the nostalgia fumes of David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson’s joyless, obligatory cameos. Aimless, mean-spirited and rarely able to conjur up some laughs, Baywatch is a summer movie that makes a compelling case for just going outside instead, even on a rainy day.(1 / 5)