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Non-Review Review: Baywatch

The most damning criticism of Baywatch is that it is actually a pretty decent Baywatch movie.

Of course, it is hard to define exactly what Baywatch is. The show ran for eleven seasons, launched a handful of spin-offs, built up an instant recognisable iconography. However, the most striking Baywatch was just how hazily the concept was defined. As imagined by Baywatch, the beach front was a tabula rasa, a canvas as blank as the sand dunes on the shore or the expressions on most of the cast’s faces. The beauty of Baywatch was in its lack of a distinct identity, its capacity to be almost anything that it wanted to be, albeit in the clumsiest and cheapest manner possible.

To Beaches, or Not To Beaches?

Baywatch was nominally a show about lifeguards, about beautiful people running in slow motion. However, it could also be a show about shark attacks, about drug smuggling, about wrestling matches, about illegal immigration, about mermaids, about possession. It could even launch a spin-off Baywatch Nights, about private investigators pursuing beach-themed crimes that evolved into a water-themed X-Files knock-off. Baywatch could be whatever the audience wanted it to be, and even sometimes what they needed it to be.

Baywatch was a mirror unto which anything could be projected, the most popular show in the world about the day-to-day adventures on Malibu Pier. Baywatch became a window into the popular consciousness, an abyss that gazed back. Many tried to decipher its mysteries, to account for its popularity. Was it as simple as the fact that very pretty people were running while wearing very little clothes? Did Baywatch speak to a deeper yearning in those landlocked countries where it proved so popular? Did Baywatch know the audience better than they knew themselves?

A versatile storytelling engine.

All of this is to say that Baywatch comes with a baked-in absurdity. It is so elastic a premise, and so ridiculous a concept, that it is pretty much immune to mockery. It is hard to imagine a joke about Baywatch that the show never embraced in earnest during its two-hundred-and-forty episode run. Baywatch is beyond parody as a pop culture object. It is a möbius strip of ridiculousness and earnestness, taking itself so seriously that it doubles back around into self-aware absurdity.

This is the biggest problem with Baywatch. It is a terrible parody of Baywatch, if only because the source material seems to exist in a realm where parody has been folded in on itself and presented as an entirely sincere beach-bound adventure.

Lost at sea.

The basic plot of Baywatch feels like it could have been lifted from the television show. Lifeguards Mitch and Brody discover that a sinister business woman is conspiring to smuggle dangerous drugs into the beach in order to drive down property prices so that she can redevelop it and destroy the community. When law enforcement seems too corrupt or too inept to prefend this fiendishly over-elaborate gentrification, it falls to the dutiful occupants of the near-sacred space known as “lifeguard tower one.”

What follows is a series of set pieces that place like the fevered imaginings of a nineties Baywatch producer: a daring dive from a motorbike on a pier into the water, to save a drowning woman; a fire on the ocean caused by oil leaking from a damaged boat; a jet-ski powered chase sequence through the bay area; a shark victim who just so happens to tie it all together; a dangerous throwdown with a drug kingpin on a fireworks rig.

Lifeguard of the party.

Every single one of these plot beats could have been played in earnest on the television show, had the production team been afforded the budget. Indeed, Baywatch barely even scratches the surface of the absurdity embodied by its source material. There is no “hip” party featuring the MTV VJ’s. Mitch never adopts an abused orangutan. The team never square off against an octopus. The team never has to figure out how to rescue a very tall man whose body size complicates their rescue operation. Nobody performs open heart surgery with a pen knife.

If anything, Baywatch would make for a very generic and middle-of-the-road episode of the television series. Nobody would remember the episode where these very attractive people have to go undercover at a pair of lavish parties to smoke out a drug smuggler. Nobody would be particularly surprised by Mitch and Brody breaking into a morgue after being warned off the case by an earnest cop. The character-driven melodrama in Baywatch seems practically low key compared to that routinely featured on the show. Nobody goes into a coma or suffers amnesia.

Keep on truckin’.

There is effectively one joke powering Baywatch. How ridiculous is it that these lifeguards become a set of action movie protagonists? At what point should they just stand back and let law enforcement step into the breach? It is not a particular good joke, given that it became obvious to viewers at some point during the first season. However, Baywatch keeps hammering away at that joke, in the hopes that repetition will make it work.

These gags are tiring, stretched as they are across nearly two hours of screentime. Matt Brody keeps playing the role of straight man, reacting with exasperation and exhaustion whenever Mitch comes up with some daring plan to safe the local beach. To be fair, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II works the gag better as Garner Ellerbee, an actual cop who constantly reacts with (deserved) bemusement to the way that the lifeguards have effectively claimed “jurisdiction” over the beach.

It’s been dune.

Baywatch suffers from a common affliction with many modern parody films. There is a tendency to mistake the reference with the joke, to suggest that it is enough to present the audience with something they recognise and count on the incongruity of context to provide a laugh. Baywatch is packed full of these little beats, with the film suggesting that it is enough have characters point out the gratuitous use of slow motion or the absurdity of sequences where people who look like Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson eat regular carb-heavy food.

This is not enough to sustain a two-hour action comedy. It is not enough to simply articulate superficial observations about the internal contradictions of the source material. These sorts of adaptations need to be saying something more, whether about the source material or simply using the source material. 21 Jump Street understood this, at once following the more ridiculous elements of the premise to their logical conclusions and spoofing the idea of comedy reboots in general.

Making a splash.

Baywatch lacks that interesting hook. Instead, it spends a lot of time on recreating the aesthetic of Baywatch within an action movie framework. The opening scene features Mitch’s finely-honed lifeguard impulses leading him to predict an accident waiting to happen, and saving the life of a para-sailor who bashed his skull against some rocks. There is no joke. It is a scene that would have been played in the original television show, albeit with slightly clumsier editing. The line between parody and adaptation is blurred. Baywatch seems to legitimately want to be an action film.

Baywatch tries to pad out the space with various stock jokes. Zac Efron is asked to play Brody as a variation on the character of Teddy from Bad Neighbours, the self-obsessed-but-ultimately-naive handsome airhead who at one point claims that he knows everything about laptops, but nothing about computers. Jon Bass is Ronnie, an overweight and nerdy young recruit who inevitably becomes “the tech guy”, while crushing on the beautiful C.J. Parker. There are lots of jokes about Ronnie’s body, but no points for guessing whether he ends up with the girl.

A little Efronned up.

Indeed, even the frat boy humour of Baywatch feels very tired and half-hearted. There are a lot of gay panic jokes, from Mitch tricking Brody into manhandling a corpse’s genitals to a sequence in which a male character hallucinates making out with a female character only to realise they are actually kissing another dude. Many of the half-effective jokes in Baywatch are blatantly stolen, from an early riff on the opening scene of There’s Something About Mary to the shots of a flaccid male penis that ceased being funny shortly after Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

The female cast members fare particularly poorly, with two of the three heroic female leads existing primarily as love interests for male character and the other existing primarily to be passed over for a promotion going into the third act. None of the characters in Baywatch feel very distinct, but at least the major male characters have something resembling an arc. The female characters are largely there to round out the cast and ensure that there are as many couples as possible by the closing credits.

C.J.
C.J. Run.
Run C.J. Run.

To be fair, Baywatch is at least a testament to how likable Dwayne Johnson is as a lead actor. Johnson has an incredibly spotty record in terms of the quality of his films. However, he exudes a very relaxed and charming screen persona, something that makes his creative missteps easier to forgive. As reimagined by Baywatch, Mitch is a deeply unpleasant character. He is self-centred, controlling, juvenile, and posturing. However, there is something inherently appealing about Johnson’s delivery, especially his recurring references to Brody through popular boy bands.

Baywatch would seem to have been a miscalculation from the outset, an attempt to spoof something that exists beyond the realm of the craziest comedy. After all, the best parody of Baywatch as a television show will inevitably be found within Baywatch as a television show. However, even allowing for the impossible brief, Baywatch is a still a clumsy piece of work. It barely tries, and often misses. It sinks pretty heavily.

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5 Responses

  1. The tv show is so much better than the movie they should have never made this movie

    • I’m not sure if it’s so much better, but it’s so much more interesting and exciting and dynamic. And unashamed of itself.

  2. I vaguely remember the TV show but I do want to see this largely because I like Johnson and Efron in their previous work and think they could be fun onscreen together. Also the ‘C.J. Run’ quip is hilarious.

    As an aside Efron’s role here and in the ‘Bad Neighours’ films and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Ghostbusters’ have made me think on the ‘blatantly objectified hot airhead’ stock character and how it is beginning to become gender neutral in modern film which I think is an interesting shift in and of itself.

    • It is an interesting shift, and I’m kinda waiting for the “himbo” to break out of the comedy subgenre, where his presence is still treated as a novelty, and into the background of other genres as just an accepted character archetype.

      Which is a very weird form of equality to want, but hey…

      • While it is technically still a comedy the 2015 teen movie ‘The DUFF’ has a more realistic, less cartoonish “himbo” figure as the romantic interest – he’s just slightly clueless but is otherwise a sweet and likable guy and the dynamic between him and and the brainy heroine feels a lot like a gender flipped version of the old geek hopelessly in love with the sweet but naive prom queen trope of 1980s teen flicks.

        I think the trope will really have arrived though if we end up seeing the male equivalent of Amanda Seyfried’s character from ‘Mean Girls’ though – the funny and sexy dumb one, who as you say is just there in the background without it being a thing.

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