Raucous comedies are typically the transgressive lifeblood of the summer movie season, offering anarchic laughs as much-needed counterprogramming to the onslaught of effects-laden franchise entries. If Baywatch is any indication, summer 2017 may dash that annual assumption. In fact, this totally-unnecessary-but-why-not adaptation of the notorious ‘90s-era syndicated phenom aspires to be an effects-laden franchise, fusing its broad comedy with intermittent action set pieces that strain all credulity, and not intentionally. But nevermind the bad action, this movie’s most egregious offense is bad comedy.
It didn’t have to be this way. The pieces were all in place. Casting Dwayne Johnson as a straight-arrow lifeguard and Zac Efron as a disgraced former Olympian who joins his crew makes perfect sense as comedic Yin and Yang. A story credited to spoof masters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant sounds promising. And it’s not as though the cheesiness of the source material would have to negatively impact this adaptation; to the contrary, those retrograde trappings could easily be torn to satiric shreds. But there is no satire or even spoof – just an incoherent pastiche of absurdly broad one-off gags, strung together with no seeming purpose or rhythm, like disparate trailer gags that have no business existing in the same movie. As for the central duo, their interaction is more earnest chest-thumping than inspired comedic push-pull. It’s difficult to blame them, though, when the film treats them as literal eye candy, subjecting them to catalog poses while the camera pans in low-angle slo-mo, cribbing from Michael Bay without a trace of irony. So for those wondering, it’s not just the women who are objectified in this version of Baywatch.
Of course, the women aren’t excluded from objectification, either. Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach takes over the role of CJ Parker (made famous by Pam Anderson), and her impressive timing and comic ability probably came as a surprise to even the filmmakers, who have little interest in anything other than exploiting her body as the object of nerdy lifeguard recruit Ronnie’s (Jon Bass) desires. Alexandra Daddario is less exploited from a physical perspective (perhaps the producers never watched True Detective) but is instead betrayed by narrative representation, introduced as the whip-smart antithesis of a helpmate damsel before turning completely into a helpmate damsel as the film drones on.
And for what purpose? Well, Johnson’s Mitch Buchanan detects an underground drug ring operating on his beach and suspects the kingpin is a wealthy socialite (Priyanka Chopra, also wasted), so his team conducts its own investigation, running afoul of local law enforcement, a dynamic ripe for comedic exploitation that the film leaves hanging at every turn. It’s a simple enough gambit made so complicated by screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift that they can’t even begin to write themselves out of the incoherent web. Shannon and Swift come to Baywatch by way of the horror genre, and to be fair, what they deliver is certainly frightening. But of course, plenty of bawdy summer comedies are narrative messes – what saves them, invariably, is their capacity for hilarity. The problem with Baywatch is that the jokes aren’t funny, at all, ever. So every last flaw becomes more glaring until the film becomes more insufferable than a sunburn.