BAYWATCH: Who’s Going To Save The Lifeguards From the Script?
Though blessed with a talented cast, Baywatch is overall a shipwreck, due to its rudimentary, unfocused script and few laughs overall.
The great English actor, Edmund Kean, was reported to have said on his deathbed, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”
Exhibit A: Baywatch.
Wants to be 21 Jump Street
No one in their right mind seriously expected that a feature reboot of the nineties kitsch classic TV show was going to be Tennessee Williams. 21 Jump Street, maybe. In 2012, Columbia Pictures and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, turned that inherently campy TV show from the late eighties into a full-out shock comedy, and raked in some $42 million their opening weekend.
Of course, 21 Jump Street was funny, a claim Baywatch simply can’t make. Joke after joke lands with a leaden thud, dragging the movie down with it as surely as an anchor around the neck. And director Seth Gordon, an experienced TV comedy hand who also helmed Horrible Bosses, doesn’t seem to have a handle on the tone he’s going for. Role model 21 Jump Street went for the R-rated, shock comedy mold from the opening frame and applied it consistently all the way to bringing the house lights back up. This included vulgar language, nudity, drug use and graphic violence with nary a blink.
Porn sensibilities come to TV
In the seventies, Charlie’s Angels brought big-haired, pouty-lipped porn sensibilities to a benign, primetime network series. Baywatch seemingly did much the same. The guiding principle was an, innocent, transparent titillation. As a movie, it seems to want to be 21 Jump Street, but doesn’t quite have the cojones. The result is unsatisfying, if less irritating than the recent feature film reboot of CHiPS. It might also be noted that beautiful people in bathing suits running in slow motion was a bigger novelty in the nineties, before porn sensibilities made an undiluted jump to the internet.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has been steadily turning into one of the must-haves for a successful summer movie, takes over the role of chief lifeguard Mitch Buchannon, a role originally played by David Hasselhof. Mitch is holding tryouts for three open positions on his team, but it’s clear he’s going to have disgraced Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Zac Efron) forced on him for one of them. His disgrace is not, as you might expect, lifted from the headlines, but from another movie, namely Pitch Perfect. A badly hungover Matt vomited in the pool during his one team relay event, and has been nicknamed “The Vomit Comet” since.
The other two slots are filled by non-athletic, tech nerd Ronnie (Jon Bass) and Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario). Ronnie has tried out before, and is painfully infatuated with lifeguard CJ, played by Kelly Rohrbach, who was clearly cast at least partly for her resemblance to Pamela Anderson, who originated the part.
Where have I seen this before?
Mitch puts his candidates through their training paces as if they were in a Ridley Scott war movie. It’s all in the interests of making the team a “family,” of course, and at times if you squint you’d swear it was Vin Diesel talking to his crew in the Fast and the Furious movies. Eventually a plot device emerges: Mitch discovers that bad guys are dealing drugs on the beach, and is determined to bring them to justice himself.
It shouldn’t be difficult to figure out the who and how, here. You’d think that scuba divers coming up from under a moored yacht in the the harbor would attract some attention. There’s a nearly Austin Powers lunacy at play here, especially when the police obstinately refuse to notice, but it’s up to the lifeguards to go undercover to nab a killer.
Um, but lifeguards don’t do this, do they?
The movie is pleasantly aware of the incongruity here. On the original show, the lifeguards often got involved in the personal lives of the people they saved at the beach, and more than once tracked down and trapped various smugglers, psychos, and other assorted bad guys. The closest the movie comes to a cohesive tone or framework arises when Mitch and his team are scolded for going outside their job descriptions. “You’re lifeguards,” they’re repeatedly told.
And this ought to be funnier than it is. But the movie is only rarely willing to embrace the sort of shock comedy that made 21 Jump Street a hit. Even when it does venture in shock territory, it seldom gets the laughs it should. In an early scene, that’s every bit as embarrassing as it sounds, Ronnie’s genitalia is wedged between the wooden slats of a beach chair, with CJ’s attempts to help him being hindered by his own, involuntary physical reactions to her touching him.
The Obligatory Dick Shot (ODS), an absolute prerequisite in many R-rated comedies produced only five or six years ago, is of a corpse. The team is searching for clues in the morgue (yes, really), and Mitch, for no comprehensible reason, forces Matt to poke around a dead guy’s genitals. Incongruous as the scene is, it just, well, lays there.
Making a shock comedy without actually shocking anyone
Oddly, there is virtually no nudity, Gordon appears to be terrified of introducing any real violence and shies away from the high-as-a-kite scene that would be de rigueur in any Seth Rogen movie. The action scenes are done straight, including a rescue from a burning boat with singularly unconvincing computer generated flames, but that only begs the question. What sort of movie are we trying to make here? Director Gordon and writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift don’t seem to have a clue, so how the hell is the audience supposed to figure it out?
Shannon and Swift are also not up to the challenge of fleshing out women in bathing suits into three-dimensional characters. As in the original material, they’re mainly there to look good while they run in slow motion, and insofar as that goes, mission accomplished. It is sort of a lost opportunity, and that’s even more the pity because the bar wasn’t set that high in the first place. Here, they’ve created a situation where the women have to pass exactly the same standards as men to do a job where they risk their own lives to save others, and the few times that the female lifeguards get to show any actual expertise it’s to show up the strutting Brody.
They do only slightly better with Priyanka Chopra as the straight-from-central-casting sexy but ruthless Latina drug boss, who sees success in crime as a feminist victory. She’s essentially a less irritating Sofia Vergara, but is more than up to her cardboard character.
The cast is too good for the material
In fact, the entire cast is too good for the material. Johnson could have phoned this one in, and odds are no one would have blamed him. To his credit, he doesn’t. He manages to imbue his Mitch Buchannon with a drill sergeant’s machismo and Ward Cleaver’s paternal compassion. He handles one of the movie’s few funny jokes, calling Matt by the name of a different boy band every time he addresses him, with an aplomb that makes the gag seem wittier than it is. The hallmark of a professional actor is often not how they do with great dialogue. A high school student can often carry off “To be or not to be…” Great dialogue elevates the actor. Nothing shows up a mediocre actor quicker than mediocre dialogue. It is impressive how well the cast does with the turkey schtick they’ve been saddled with.
That leaves the inevitable conclusion that the people who need saving the most here are a likable cast with nothing to do but look good in a movie that’s otherwise a conceptual disaster. Baywatch looks good – the photography is in places even better than it needs to be – but this is still basically a day old sushi platter.
There is no reason to pay first run admission prices for this, and even Redbox would be a stretch. Dwayne Johnson will survive this, but hopefully the rest of the cast won’t go down with the ship, only to surface in the DVD cutout bin. Someone needs to save the lifeguards from the script.
What do you think? Is Baywatch a bomb sinking to the bottom, or does The Rock make it worth watching?
Baywatch is already playing in the United States and various Eastern European markets. It opens May 29, 2017 in the United Kingdom.
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