One of the least funny running jokes in the new Baywatch movie — which is really saying something because there are a lot of unfunny running jokes in the new Baywatch movie — involves these lifeguards constantly inserting themselves into situations outside their jurisdiction. They refer to laughable cases that have nothing to do with rescuing drowning swimmers, and one character even quips that it all “sounds like a really entertaining, but far-fetched TV show,” a nod to the old Baywatch that serves as the film’s source material and chief target. But the case that takes up most of the film’s inexplicably expansive runtime (116 minutes! For a Baywatch movie!) is just as absurd, with the lifeguards trying to take down a drug ring and real-estate swindle. Ha…ha?

Is Baywatch meant to be a send-up to the old ’90s TV show or to evoke it on a much larger scale? The film never quite decides. There was a clear model for Baywatch’s creators to follow here — the 21 Jump Street movies — but even with a successful film to copy, they managed to screw it up. The big-screen Jump Street had an assured tone and style; it knew exactly what it was (broadly meta buddy action). Baywatch’s comedy (credited to six different writers) is second-rate and its action is even worse, with special effects that rank among the absolute worst I’ve seen in a big summer movie in many years.

Most of the film’s stars play characters from the Baywatch TV series, which gets extra confusing when actors from the old show begin popping up in cameos also playing the characters from the old show. David Hasselhoff’s dedicated chief lifeguard Mitch Buchannon is now played by America’s beefiest sweetheart, Dwayne Johnson. His team, which includes Ilfenesh Hadera’s Stephanie and Kelly Rohrbach’s CJ, needs new members, so the first act mostly follows recruits like enthusiastic Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and bumbling Ronnie (Jon Bass) as they tackle various obstacle courses and physical challenges.

Mitch also gets saddled with hard-partying former Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron). Matt’s a fast swimmer and a terrible team player; he’s too selfish to be a great lifeguard, but Mitch’s boss (Rob Huebel) hopes his antics will make for good publicity anyway. Efron was surely cast in Baywatch for similar reasons, along with his strong comedic showing in the Neighbors movies. Baywatch, sadly, is no Neighbors, and Efron looks hopelessly lost. (He also looks so absurdly muscular, like he’s auditioning for a movie adaptation of the Body Worlds exhibit, that his physique is more distracting than impressive.)

There’s a lot of poking fun at the cheesiness of the Baywatch TV show, like the one-piece red bathing suits and the characters jogging in slow-motion. But you know what they say about people in glass houses, and the comedy in the Baywatch movie is anything but cutting edge. It mostly consists of Johnson calling Efron names, Bass fumbling over his words around Rohrbach, some R-rated profanity, and one sequence in which Efron has to examine a murdered man’s genitals for clues because it’s a rule that all summer comedies must include at least one scene where a man is made uncomfortable by the sight of another man’s penis or repulsed by the thought of kissing a guy. (SPOILER ALERT: Baywatch has both.)

Even in a movie this underwritten, Johnson is still charismatic enough to make his scenes relatively pleasant. Priyanka Chopra looks like she’s having a blast playing the film’s drug-dealing villain; someone should pair her with Johnson for a buddy action movie. Still, if Baywatch was going to work with gags this flimsy it was going to need outrageously exciting action scenes, something director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) appears incapable of delivering. A scene set on a burning yacht features fire effects flimsier than anything on the Baywatch TV show, and there are so many unconvincing green-screen shots that I started having flashbacks to The Room. This is not a good-looking movie.

It’s easy to dismiss the old Baywatch. But that show, dopey as it was, pioneered the export of lowest-common denominator entertainment to the widest-possible audience at a time when movies were just beginning to discover the potential of the international market. Simple plots, likable characters, lots of bloodless action, a hint of sex (but not too much, so you’re not limited by a restrictive content rating); the Baywatch formula is essentially the formula of every modern blockbuster. When Gordon and his collaborators make fun of the old show, they don’t seem to realize that the joke’s on them.

Additional Thoughts:
-In their last film together, Alexandra Daddario played Dwayne Johnson’s daughter. Now they’re co-workers. Mercifully, she doesn’t play his love interest.

-One of the big “comic” setpieces involves Ronnie getting his junk stuck in a deck chair. He jumps on the chair and his junk goes through two of the slats and he can’t get it out. This movie was made almost entirely by men. How is it possible that none of them understand how the male reproductive organ actually works?

-Baywatch reminded me once again that the best way to tell if a comedy is bad is whether it has bloopers in the closing credits.

-Mel Brooks never directed a movie longer than 104 minutes. Baywatch is 116 minutes. Go ’watch something else.


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