‘Baywatch’ was a cultural institution in the early 1990s. The TV show was syndicated worldwide and helped usher a generation of young boys through puberty while also keeping a generation of adult males firmly trapped in their adolescence. The show was always a joke, mocked mercilessly and enjoyed only through guilt. Now there’s a movie, and while it desperately wants to be an exercise in irony and meta-comedy like the successful ’21 Jump Street’ franchise, it’s mostly just the same old crap in a more expensive package.
The tragically inevitable ‘Baywatch’ movie opens with its finest sequence. There’s a tragedy on a beach and Dwayne “Still the Rock No Matter How Many Years Pass” Johnson’s lifeguard Mitch Buchannon dives in to be a savior in a variety of overblown slow-motion beauty shots. He arises from the water like a heroic beast with the title ‘Baywatch’ imposed behind him on the horizon in a shot that would make Michael Bay jealous if it was sincere. For a fleeting moment, it feels as though director Seth Gordon (‘The King of Kong’, ‘Horrible Bosses’) might be on the right track with his ‘Baywatch’ reboot (reboob?), crafting a straight-faced indulgence in the absurd sincerity of the original series that turns into deliberate laughs without bursting the bubble. It’s a pretty great opening. Then the movie perhaps predictably goes downhill from there.
This ‘Baywatch’ project has been in development for so long that the credits boast names as varied as Ivan Reitman and Eli Roth as producers who were once in charge of this leaky vessel. You can feel at least two incarnations of the project battle for on-screen attention throughout. There’s an ’80s sex comedy version with a dorky loser (Jon Bass) joining the team in an underdog dream come true and possibly even hooking up with his dream girl, CJ (Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kelly Rohrback in the role originated by Pamela Anderson). That plot thread is all dated dick and T&A jokes as a dork becomes a hero in a sea of boobies. Then there’s the ’21 Jump Street’ version grounded by The Rock at his most charmingly tongue-in-cheek. This plot plays out as a self-mocking semi-parody of ‘Baywatch’ with everyone questioning why lifeguards are so involved in police matters. In this chunk of the flick, Zac Efron also learns important lessons about embracing his teammates and not being a jerk as a former Olympian stuck on the beach.
It very much feels like there were two ‘Baywatch’ screenplays at one point. One was an ’80s comedy throwback, the other an exercise in self-parody. Neither script had enough successful jokes for a full feature, so they were awkwardly jammed together. The tone never quite feels consistent, bouncing from meta to sincere without enough heart or satire to satisfy either tone. Characters and storylines disappear without reason. Big leaps in logic are never explained. The whole thing just lazily lurches along, bouncing from being genuinely amusing to being horribly misconceived (often within the same scene).
At the center, Dwayne Johnson (apologies in advance for the terrible incoming pun) is a rock. He at least knows how to find the right mixture of irony and sincerity, even if the movie doesn’t. He holds things together as best he can. Beyond that, the cast are all serviceable at best. This is a comedy populated almost exclusively by straight men and women, which would work if the script had enough deadpan humor for them to sell. But it doesn’t. Not by a long shot. When ringers like Hannibal Buress and Rob Huebel show up to get actual laughs, you’ll lament the fact that there weren’t more actual comedians in this comedy.
On the plus side, Seth Gordon crafts a pretty picture, which helps if you were hoping for little more than beach bum beauty shots. Other than that (and the steadying hand of The Rock), the flick is an absolute mess. It’s not trashy enough to be camp or funny enough to be comedy. It awkwardly stumbles somewhere in the middle. It’s a ‘Baywatch’ movie made by filmmakers who considered themselves above the material yet had no idea how to properly parody the source. The action is dull. The jokes are lame. Not even the inevitable cameos from the cheeseball legends of the original ‘Baywatch’ register, merely popping up because they have to with little to do. (Seriously, there’s no reason why ‘Baywatch’ doesn’t at least have the best self-mocking David Hasselhoff cameo of the summer’)
Of course, it probably could have been assumed that the ‘Baywatch’ movie would be bad. For those who adore The Rock beyond all reason or those who will be shocked that the movie is even remotely self-aware, ‘Baywatch’ may qualify as a pleasant surprise. However, anyone hoping for that blockbuster ‘Baywatch’ pisstake promised in the trailers is sure to be disappointed. Sadly, that crowd will likely even include the filmmaking team behind this turkey, because that’s clearly what they were striving for. They just didn’t get there, despite Dwayne Johnson’s biggest smiles and best efforts.