Midway through Baywatch, it becomes evident why the movie adaptation of the trashy ’90s TV action-drama earned an R-rating. Emerald Bay’s life-saving, crime-solving lifeguard gang is examining a dead man’s body, right down to his flaccid penis. The penis is of average length, average girth, unremarkable in every way. The only thing riveting about this dick is that someone thought it funny or shocking enough to devote ample screen time to a dead, useless thing.
Baywatch is a lot like that dead man’s penis: It’s a limp, charmless thing that doesn’t warrant the effort or time spent looking at it.
Considering how well the Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill-led 21 Jump Street franchise was received both by critics and at the box office, it’s understandable that studios would want to recapture the magic and cash in on other television reboots. But unfortunately for Paramount, and for any true Baywatch fan, the movie is more of a warning — a reminder that no matter how powerful nostalgia is and how much talent you have in the roster, you can still bungle what should be a fun movie.
Baywatch has no idea how to use its talent
Baywatch keeps the spirit of the original TV series, which ran from 1989 to 2001, largely intact by porting over many of the original characters. Mitch (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), originated by David Hasselhoff, is the superhero-like, fearless leader of these do-gooder lifeguards. CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) is the bombshell. Summer (Alexandra Daddario) is also a bombshell, but the movie sells her as the girl next door. (It is very strange that we’re at the point where Daddario, who just two years ago was playing the teen dream babe in San Andreas is now playing the relatable “girl next door” archetype in movies.) Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) is Mitch’s right-hand woman. The group’s professional camaraderie is thrown for a loop when the cocky and brash Matt Brody (Zac Efron) enters the mix.
Over the past few years, Efron’s biggest success has been his role as the fratty stalwart Teddy in the Neighbors movies. That role allowed Efron to lean into his good looks and increasingly shredded musculature to create a character who hits a sweet spot between menacing, funny, vulnerable, and soulless.
Baywatch wants to tap into a version of that with Efron’s Brody, who is essentially the same character as Teddy. They’re both genetically gifted specimens — Efron in this movie looks like a mound of boulders in a too-tight, too-tan skin suit — whom the world seems to bend to and favor. They’re also both gigantic fuckups: Teddy is the eternal frat boy while Brody is a Ryan Lochte simulacrum, an Olympic golden boy who sullied his reputation by losing one for his team in spectacular fashion.
Where Brody differs, and where Baywatch fails, is in the film’s deeply unfunny script.
Screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift love themselves some boy-band jokes, which are seemingly peppered throughout every scene Efron appears in. There’s no imagination to these jokes, which consist solely of The Rock calling Efron “Jonas brother” or “N’Sync.” Another running “gag” is that Brody can’t help himself from looking at boobs. And for the bro-humor hat-trick, the film’s main comedic throughline are dick “jokes,” which, like the jokes about boybands and breasts, are more people pointing at dicks and/or saying “dick” than actual jokes.
The limp resulting comedy is no real fault of Efron; it’s hard to imagine any comedic actor running with these one-beat jokes and not sinking.
It’s also bit jarring that Baywatch doesn’t allow for much physical comedy between Efron and Johnson, two actors known for their physicality who have shown in previous movies how funny and charismatic they can be. There’s a smidge of a scene where the two puff their chests at one another. Another sliver of a sequence features the two sharing a jet ski, Efron with his arms around The Rock’s refrigerator-sized torso, but it’s played straight. And there’s a small moment where Efron stuffs himself into drag, though the humor never goes beyond how strange Efron looks.
Sadly, there’s seemingly no desire on the screenplay’s part to explore Efron or The Rock’s comedic chemistry beyond having them spout sophomoric insults at each other. For a movie that’s allegedly a comedy, it never feels like it’s having fun.
Baywatch doesn’t care about its characters
The biggest problem with Baywatch is that it never commits to whether it’s honoring or mocking the original series. In fairness, figuring out the cultural importance of Baywatch isn’t as easy as it sounds. For viewers of a certain age, it’s best remembered as a gratuitous (or sexually confusing) excuse to watch Pamela Anderson and David Chokachi flail around in slow-motion. But the ’90s silliness of the series and its main protagonist, Hasselhoff’s Mitch Buchannon, is undercut by an undeniable earnestness that complicates its adaptation to modern comedy.
Essentially, the film never figures out why it’s remaking the television series, whether it wants to make fun of ’90s Baywatch or simply replicate it for 2017. And Baywatch’s lack of conviction in either direction results in a cast characters who, at their worst, feel like flippant reflections of the originals, and are impossible to root for.
Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass cosplaying as Josh Gad) is an outsider, a pudgy tech guy with dreams of being a lifeguard. Somehow he makes it on the team, and the movie all but forgets him until the last 12 minutes, where he gets a moment with Rohrbach’s CJ. We don’t actually get to see him guard lives, or display what kind of “fight” he allegedly has (which is the reason given for his improbable addition to the team). We don’t see where he lives, or really anything beyond his perpetual erection for CJ.
The same goes for CJ and Stephanie, Mitch’s second-in-command. CJ runs in slow motion and has breasts. Stephanie doesn’t run in slow motion, has breasts, and gets everyone on the same page because she’s second-in-command. Summer likes marine biology, because Brody literally says, “you studied marine biology, right?”
For Brody and Mitch, there’s nothing underneath their pounds of muscle. They’re both chiseled beef slabs, and emotional weaklings, but there’s nothing beyond that cliché. Again, this is less a failure on the parts of the actors, who at least seem game, and more a failure of the script and directing. There’s no roundness to the characters or their stories, not even a glimmer of anything that seems remotely human in these two paleo Poseidons.
If Baywatch were the slightest bit aware of the cruel satire it’s transmitting — that perhaps the series was actually about physically imposing, soulless plastic people — it’d be a far more fascinating film. But what we have is a movie that doesn’t know what it’s doing, and barely seems to care. It’s content to vacillate between one-note sneering and make-outs with no thought for how it all fits together.
Baywatch isn’t particularly concerned with exploring the relationships between these people, their world, or anything in between. And if the film doesn’t care about putting the basic work into adapting a series or putting life into its characters, then why should we? Especially when it’s about as enjoyable as a dead man’s dick.