“We’re going to penetrate the shit out of this place.”
Baywatch isn’t high art. It’s hardly art at all. The long-running NBC television program was a cheap excuse to watch attractive people run up-and-down the beach in bright red one piece swimsuits, quite usually in slow-motion. It’s sleazy, greasy, unsophiscated television, but it aired for eleven whole seasons. Clearly, it knew how to garner an audience, if not much of a cultural impact (away from some select David Hasselhoff-loving regions of Europe, of course). Which makes it an easy target for the 21 Jump Street/The Brady Bunch Movie-esque studio comedy. The property is recognizable, yet it isn’t sacred text. There’s nostalgia ingrained, yet even the most hardcore fan will gleefully attest that it’s not hard to rattle some zingers out of the show’s flimsy expense. It’s a highly-viewed TV series, yet at the same time, it’s not an overly iconic one. Perhaps it’s a testament on the infuriating ongoing indifference of the Hollywood studio system, then, that Seth Gordon’s deliriously unfunny Baywatch is so ridiculously, astonishingly terrible.
Filling in for Hasselhoff, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as Lt. Mitch Buchannon, a deeply dedicated lifeguard with nearly superhero-level life-saving skills. Filled with vigorous, nearly Hulkian pride for his position, Buchannon takes it upon himself to protect everyone both inside and outside the shores of his beach, hoping to eliminate the ongoing drug problem investing his crowded waters with ruthless intensity — much to the frustration of Sgt. Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the actual law-enforcement dealing with the local crime in the area. With the help of his fellow lifeguards, which includes the slightly goofy CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach) and Mitch’s highly experienced right-hand woman Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera), Buchannon will stop at nothing to bring down the dangerous corruption and drug problem in the surrounding area, and that includes the insistence of his boss, Captain Thorpe (Rob Huebel), who wants nothing more than for his lifeguards to actually do their appointed jobs. With hopes to bring more good publicity to the beach (because beaches need more publicity?), Thorpe ropes in former Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a Ryan Lochte-esque two-time gold medal awarded swimmer with an embarrassing situation in his recent past that earns him the unfortunate nickname “The Vomit Comet,” to join Buchannon’s team, much to the experienced lifeguard’s annoyance.
At first, they clash heads, continously taunting each other and flexing their ridiculous muscles, but soon Buchannon and Brody learn to put their differences aside in order to bring down the criminal mastermind Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), who continues to bring in more dead bodies to their sandy shores. Through the help of fellow new recruits, the fetching Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) and the flabby, dorky computer nerd with a good heart Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass), these lifeguards will do whatever it takes to wash away Victoria’s nefarious schemes. But of course, why do I need to spend so much time focusing on the plot of Baywatch? It’s so half-hearted, so intensely by-the-books, that it barely matters in the slightest.
I honestly cannot remember a single moment when I laughed during Baywatch. Not a single moment. To say it’s devoid of laughs would let one assume that comedy was somehow feasible inside this wholehearted generic, meanderingly formulaic, impressively sterile attempt at satire, yet the only thing impressive about it is just how much time and effort they can put into a movie this resoundingly, incredibly underwhelming. Not even The Rock, easily among the most dedicated, charismatic, wildly enthusiastic A-listers working in the modern moviemaking system, can make this one worthwhile. And that’s truly saying something. Not since 2010’s abysmal, if thankfully forgotten, Tooth Fairy has Johnson sucken himself into a film as horrible as this one.
Which is a shame, since Johnson tries to carry it with his typical passion, yet it’s no use. A long-in-the-works project that’s weirdly empty both in terms of laughs and energy, Gordon’s latest narrative feature is too confused and deflatable to earn any of 21 Jump Street’s heights. Even CHIPS felt more inspired and invigorated. With each attempt to poke fun at the source material, there’s an odd mix of reverence and sincerity to the source material that makes it hard for any of the jokes to hold any weight. The plotting is too generic and forced upon for the laughs to come naturally, while the jokes are too juvenile and lazy to make the plot hold any threat or emotional investment. It’s a Catch 22 situation of pure shittiness, where nothing works.
What results is a halfway comedy with no real stakes, no emotional investment and, most importantly, no genuine laughs. Despite its heavily-enforced R rating, Baywatch only feels the need to use its adult rating to throw around the f-bomb and include a various number of dick jokes. That’s it. It’s f-bomb, dick joke, f-bomb, dick joke, over and over and over again. It’s tired before it even begins, and it makes the ensuing two-hours (!) that follow completely tiresome and borderline unwatchable. Which isn’t necessarily surprising, but it’s still disappointing. I went into the movie with no expectations and yet it found a way to be even worse than I imagined. It’s honestly one of the worst studio comedies I’ve seen in years, right next to Identity Thief, which was also directed by Gordon. Note to Gordon: please stick with TV and documentaries, please. The King of Kong was great. Please make another movie in that vein before you consider returning to something as insipid and shallow as Baywatch, a film that’s somehow holds less water than the show that inspired it. You know, it takes a special kind of bad to be that very bad.