The new Baywatch movie is the cinematic equivalent of a bouncing ball sac coming at you, of course, in slow motion. The idea seems vaguely humorous and vulgarly adventurous, but in the end result is kind of off-putting and about as funny as a ball sac could really ever be. (Ball sacs feature prominently into the new feature film Baywatch!)
This is entirely disappointing.
Not only does the fact that a recent press screening of the film elicited roughly 15 aggregate seconds of laughter from the room make my job as Chief Zac Efron Apologist increasingly difficult—he’s a really good comedic actor, guys, and is obviously the best part of the movie by far. But the level to which the film does not succeed is a huge affront to the country’s biggest Baywatch fan (me).
Covering entertainment, you become well versed in the phenomenon of overprotective fans having rage strokes over the ways their cherished pop culture properties are adapted. Some people have strong feelings about the DC Comics universe. Others might be upset about Meryl Streep being cast in a Stephen Sondheim movie musical. Or fucking Ghostbusters being cast with women.
For me it is Baywatch.
Some people stand in the darkness, afraid to step into the light. But no, not me, who as a ten-year-old would sit down with family for hours and unironically watch marathons of this iconic show. We didn’t know Baywatch was a pop culture joke. We only knew that it was riveting.
You see, aside from the softcore titillation of humongous breasts gyrating in slow motion, Baywatch was deceptively wholesome family entertainment. I wasn’t allowed to watch Ren & Stimpy cartoons or The Simpsons while growing up because they were deemed too crude by Mrs. Fallon. But we would watch the shit out of Baywatch, and then spend hours parsing out the episodes as if we were dissecting Nietzsche.
We had opinions. We had favorites. I always gravitated towards Yasmine Bleeth, with later-season love for Brooke Burke. To this day, I will defend Pamela Anderson as an actress because her performance as C.J. Parker was a powerhouse. And Alexandra Paul’s steely, successful, strong leader Stephanie Holden is a bona fide feminist icon, if you ask me. (And presumably if you clicked on this article you have!)
Obviously Baby Gay Kevin’s first crushes were on the Baywatch hunks. I’ve grown immune to my boyfriend’s eyerolls each time I shout “he used to be on Baywatch!” whenever Michael Bergin or David Chokachi shows up in a commercial for a Hallmark Christmas movie.
But aside from my mother’s seemingly innocent wondering “why those poor girls have to have their bathing suits shoved so far up their bottoms,” for us it was never about the sexuality. In fact, most of the show’s silliness was somehow lost on us.
This was a show that took place on the beach. We loved the beach! The lifeguards, clearly overstepping their bounds, fought crimes and fires and chased bad guys on boats and on jet skis and even on surf boards. It was badass! I was ten—a sheltered ten. It was precisely the amount of action-adventure I wanted and could handle at that age. And again, all taking place at the beach. Which, reminder: I loved!
While in red bathing suits that, to this day, I’ve never been tan enough to pull off, they fought yacht pirates and arms dealers, manhandled sharks and saltwater crocodiles (who knew?!), and warned of the dangers of skin cancer and also that the Santa Ana winds can make you horny.
It was campy, but knew it was and made the perfect tonal decision to play its lunacy completely straight. But for all the action scenes in the Baywatch film, all the sexiness of its stars, and the aggressiveness with which its dialogue sets out to earn its R-rating, the film never really finds a voice.
The overly complicated plot introduces Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the overambitious lifeguard lieutenant Mitch Buchannon, confusingly sharing the same name as David Hasselhoff’s character from the series, even though Hasselhoff makes a cameo in the film.
Efron is Matt Brody, a new recruit who was hired to give the team some much-needed PR. Brody is a dimwitted Olympic gold medalist who is on probation for some mysterious misdeed he committed while at the Games. In other words, Zac Efron is playing Ryan Lochte, a spoof so on the nose that it almost becomes icky more than amusing.
Mitch, Brody, and the rest of the Baywatch beauties are at constant odds with a police department that is increasingly fatigued by their overstepping investigations into non-lifeguard matters. In this case, it’s a convoluted drug smuggling ring and real estate scheme led by Quantico star Priyanka Chopra, taking advantage of all the wardrobe money saved by outfitting the leads in as little as possible.
The whole thing sort of devolves into Scooby-Doo in bathing suits, but without the required self-awareness on the part of the meddling kids to make the ordeal tongue-in-cheek funny.
The best line of the entire film is when, confused why the other lifeguards care so much about policing things outside of their jurisdiction, Efron makes a meta joke about how it all sounds like an “entertaining but farfetched TV show.”
There is so much potential in the silliness of the Baywatch series to nail a raunchy film adaptation with that self-referential, mocking-homage hybrid tone. Think of the meta comedy of 21 Jump Street, which sort of deconstructed itself as a spoof and in the process turned into an incredibly smart R-rated comedy.
At best, Baywatch is a less intelligent, yet still mindlessly fun failed attempt at recreating that 21 Jump Street comedic formula.
At worst, it is a film with the swagger of a movie that thinks it’s hit some comedic sweet spot it has actually missed entirely, making it even harder to watch. The ribald humor lands with an awkward thud, including but not limited to a scene in which Johnson’s character tricks Efron into fondling the scrotum of a corpse in a morgue.
More, it doesn’t seem to understand the camp of it all. Unless you confuse gay panic jokes about dudes making out and dressing in drag as camp.
It even seems as if the filmmakers realized this because roughly two-thirds of the way through the film, perhaps scrambling under the realization that The Rock’s Mitch has failed to deliver anything consistent or interesting as a character, they randomly start giving him Miami Vice meets Mortal Kombat arcade game taglines to deliver: “Oh, you’re going night-night, bitch!” “Bath time, shit head.” “This is our beach, bitch!”
But just when you start getting into that, the film is over. And, though she arrives in a cameo at the very end, it is far too late for Pamela Anderson to run over in slow motion to resuscitate it.
It’s not that I’m so protective of my Baywatch series memories that I’d never want it adapted to a movie, or that I didn’t think an R-rated comedy version sending up the endearing seriousness of the show was the right the approach. It is that I am dismayed that the product was this egregiously not good.
Quoth Tyra, I was rooting for you! Speaking on behalf of the Fallons, we were all rooting for you.