What hath 21 Jump Street wrought?
The idea to turn a famous television program into a raunchy, self-aware comedy film isn’t a new one (The Brady Bunch Movie, Land of the Lost), but the pair of Jump Street films fairly perfected the art while elevating it with a decidedly R-rating. Following this same updated formula, Baywatch has infused a cheesy, familiar television drama with graphic nudity and wanton cursing in an attempt to elicit Jump Street-level laughs. Too bad that, like many studio comedies of late, Baywatch opts to lean on likable stars to improvise their way through a flimsy script rather than writing actual punchlines. (To wit, the trailers’ dreary jokes have been supplanted with even weaker takes in the finished film.) Considering how thin the source material already was, this should come as no surprise.
Inexplicably set in Florida despite the Californian film shoot and television show setting, Baywatch follows the adventures and romances of a group of wildly-attractive lifeguards as they patrol their beach and keep swimmers from drowning. As a character introduction device, Baywatch veterans Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera), and C.J. Parker (Kelly Rohrbach) hold tryouts for new lifeguard recruits, and a surfer (Alexandra Daddario), a disgraced former Olympian (Zac Efron), and a disco-dancing geek in love with Parker (Jon Bass) impress the team enough to join. Perfunctory character arcs aside, the main intrigue is a ludicrous and ill-defined beachside conspiracy involving real estate and murders and drug-smuggling that the dialogue winkingly admits was ripped from the television program. (Starsky & Hutch, another foul-mouthed, meta TV adaptation, had a similar fixation on drug-running, murders on boats, and disco dancing.) The lifeguards take it upon themselves—another absurd conceit acknowledged by the dialogue—to investigate these various crimes and just how businesswoman Valerie Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) is involved.
With such a slim plot to fit the comedy around, the resulting vacuum becomes all the more palpable. Too often a “fuck” is used in lieu of an actual joke, and the constant knowing parodies of Baywatch—an often-parodied, self-parody of a show—reach the point of post-redundancy. It doesn’t help that many of these duds are deliberately jogged out again and again as insistent runners. (To call this repetition anti-comedy is giving the film too much credit.) Acclaimed documentarian Seth Gordon (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters) directed from a script with six credited writers, so he is in no way completely to blame for how unfunny Baywatch ended up. Ostensibly purposed as an action film as well as comedy, it’s competently-made enough, and Gordon does occasionally show some flair for kinetic filmmaking when he’s not inserting his pulchritudinous cast into high-key, obviously green-screened beach scenes.
And the cast is up for it, even while the jokes from their lame duck screenplay constantly fall flat. The ever-charismatic Johnson tries like hell to sell some clunkers throughout, while his reliable meathead foil Efron shows an unwavering devotion to making himself look even more of an asshole than his highlighted hair already succeeds in. Bass (the enthusiastic audience surrogate to our unenthusiastic audience) and his genitals get a lot of screen time, as does Rohrbach’s pleasantly good-natured lifeguard, and the seductive Chopra makes the most of her strangely rare appearances. Given the shortest shrift are Daddario and Hadera, whose underwritten characters are such blank window dressing that it’s a surprise they aren’t objectified more. (The film’s sole, grand irony is that the only nudity in this avowed cheesecake conveyance vehicle comes from men.) A few wasted comic ringers (Rob Huebel, Hannibal Buress) and unceremonious cameos (David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson) round out this ensemble of desperate shills.
The problem with Baywatch—beyond being utterly laughless—is that it wants to honor the series while simultaneously tearing it down. It succeeds at neither. In terms of wringing laughs from mocking the brand, it is decades too late for the party; in attempting to conjure nostalgia for an iconic, albeit trash, television show from the last decade of the 20th century, Baywatch only ends up invoking the spirit of the dismally overcooked tentpole TV adaptations of the era. Like The Saint and The Flintstones before it, years of work and myriad creative team permutations went into delivering a massive, expensive movie based on a television show. The series may have birthed a legitimate cultural phenomenon, but this Baywatch film is just stillborn.
Director: Seth Gordon
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 119 minutes
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Jon Bass, Ilfenesh Hadera, Priyanka Chopra