5.5 out of 10
Dwayne Johnson as Mitch Buchannon
Directed by Seth Gordon
Baywatch wants to be 21 Jump Street (the movie, not the TV show) so badly. The filmmakers seem to think that they can simply take the premise of the the television show, throw in some R-rated humor and the show’s customary “beautiful people running on the beach,” add Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, stir, and instant success. Thing is, 21 Jump Street has the inimitable talents of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who filled their movie with more subtext than anyone ever expected, and they didn’t hold back on the ridiculous nature of making a movie out of a television show from the 1980s. By comparison, Baywatch seems to want to get by with some raunchy scenes, a liberal dropping of F-bombs, and once in a while throw in a bit of self-deprecating humor. If there’s anyone who could find that sweet spot that Lord and Miller found in 21 Jump Street, it’s Seth Gordon, who has made some wonderful comedy both on television and cinema (and who directed one of my very favorite documentaries, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters). But Baywatch can’t get there, and too many jokes fall flat on their face.
It’s always hard to understand why a comedy fails – sometimes it’s mere timing, or simply trying too hard. Johnson and Efron have been funny before. Johnson, particularly, has wonderful charisma and an irreverent humor that should, by all accounts, make Baywatch work. But it doesn’t. Johnson strangely holds back when he should go broad, and while Efron can be just as self-deprecating and ridiculous in films like Neighbors, Johnson seems afraid to poke fun at himself. He plays Mitch as earnest when he should be winking a bit with the audience, almost as if he’s not in on the joke. He has his moments, to be sure, and Johnson and Efron have a fun give-and-take together, but we’ve seen Johnson be funny, and he’s just not very funny here.
Blame the script, which seems to ape a Baywatch episode without capturing what made the show endure for as long as it did. The television show wasn’t very self-aware, but that was part of its charm. By comparison, Baywatch wants to poke us in the ribs at every opportunity, calling attention to itself. Comedy should surprise, and there is very little to surprise us in Baywatch.
Mitch’s lifeguard squad is the best of the best, but when they find themselves short a few members, Mitch holds a contest to fill the slots. Enter Matt Brody (Efron) a disgraced gold-medal winner who thinks that his swimming skills should be enough to pull him over. Mitch, however, takes his job as protector of the beach seriously, and when it looks like drugs are making their way into the area, Mitch and his team, in violation of pretty much every legal jurisdiction, decide to investigate local entrepreneur Vicrtoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra). When prominent members of the community start to show up dead, Mitch takes it upon himself to stop Victoria’s nefarious plans for the Bay.
There isn’t much of a plot, but there aren’t enough laughs to justify all that dead space, either. Out-of-shape Ronnie’s (Jon Bass) eagerness to join the squad in his attempts to impress CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) feels like screenwriter wish fulfillment, and the prerequisite cameos from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson do little more than distract the audience. This film needed a huge comedic setpiece, and one sequence in a morgue tries its hardest to be that scene, but falls flat. Johnson seems to want to be respectable and raunchy at the same time, and it doesn’t work. Too much of the humor seems forced, and the funniest moments, to me, involve Sergeant Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) as he struggles to make Mitch aware that he doesn’t have any real authority.
Baywatch isn’t a complete waste of time – some of the supporting roles are funny, including Kelly Rohrbach, who seems to know what kind of movie she’s in. But for the most part, Baywatch is as annoying as sand in the shorts. An R rating isn’t an automatic stamp of funny on a movie like this, and Baywatch becomes the film that we all expected 21 Jump Street to be. That film succeeded because it embraced its insanity, but Baywatch plays it safe too many times.