Matt Brody, the cocky, selfish new blood protecting the beaches of Baywatch, may be well-known around the world as the “Vomit Comet” for his unfortunate mishap during an Olympic swimming event, but his portrayer, Zac Efron, is that much closer to being dubbed the “Dick Whisperer”. It’s hard to find a recent comedy Efron has been in that doesn’t involve some drawn out joke involving the male appendage. And though there are plenty of other comedians (Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill among them) that rely heavily on this body part to squeeze out comedy, it seems Efron makes sure it’s written into his contract. I’ve seen it done right in movies like “There’s Something About Mary,” where the joke itself has more importance than simple embarrassment, but when a film focuses so much time and attention on two unoriginal dick jokes that overstay their welcome well before they ever appear, something has gone horribly wrong.
Dwayne Johnson takes over the reigns of Mitch Buchannon, the lead lifeguard saving lives on the warm quiet beaches of a Hawaiian bay. Each year Mitch and his team (which includes the spicy CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach) and veteran Stephanie Holden (Ilfenish Hadera)) hosts a competition to find a new candidate ready to become an elite bay watcher. Enter Brody, a two-time Olympian who’s brought in by Captain Thorpe (Rob Huebel) to amp up PR. For what reason is unclear, as there doesn’t seem to be any PR problem with Mitch or his team, seeing as how Mitch is so beloved across the island. (A reason does reveal itself later in the film, but by then, it almost feels inconsequential and a little shoehorned in.) Brody and Mitch both have a cockiness to them, which causes the two to clash right off the bat, and Johnson and Efron make the best of it, bringing a father figure/unruly teen dynamic to the proceedings. It’s a shame the aspects that make their relationship work at first quickly wear thin, as writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift don’t seem to know where to take it beyond the initial setup.
After three new lifeguards are chosen to become trainees, which include Brody, girl next door Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario), and computer nerd with a heart of gold Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass), Mitch begins to find evidence (including drugs and dead bodies) that something nefarious is happening on his beach. Everything seems to track back to the new owner of the beach club, Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), and though we’re constantly reminded that Mitch and his team are not cops, Mitch takes it upon himself to investigate the alleged murders and take Victoria down once and for all, consequences be damned.
I was never a fan of Baywatch the series, so I’m unclear as to the tone of the show and whether this film captures any of what made the show itself popular (aside from David Hasselhoff’s charming grin and Pamela Anderson’s… um… flotation devices). What I do know is that the movie needed more Brady Bunch-style self-referential fun and less juvenile boorishness. For instance, throughout the film, Mitch continually calls Brody things like “One Direction” or “Beiber” to make fun of his wise-ass, pretty-boy stature. It’s when he calls Brody “High School Musical” that brings out the wink-wink cleverness that’s missing from the majority of the two hour film.
Instead, we’re inundated with comedy that feels old, rehashed and worn, like a suitcase that’s been consumed by the underbelly of a plane one too many times. Not only that, but a lot of what happens, including Brody dressing like a woman (complete with makeup), doesn’t seem to have a purpose other than because the writers thought it would be funny. There’s absolutely no payoff other than to see Efron in a wig and dress. By the time Hasselhoff shows up to reprise his role of Mitch in a pseudo, weird way, we’re already itching to leave the theater.
There’s also a worn-out romantic subplot between Brody and Summer that not even Matthew McConaughey would’ve touched in his rom-com heyday. Daddario, who doesn’t look like she wants to be there half the time, probably has better chemistry with a corpse than she’ll ever have with Efron, and the whole romance gets overshadowed by a much better secondary subplot between Ronnie and CJ, which though played for laughs has way more power than anything the leads are igniting on screen. I can’t say there was enough to justify the ultimate conclusion to the Ronnie/CJ relationship, but at least there were evident sparks between Rohrback and Bass.
Where the film does work is as a cheesy action film. Director Seth Gordon competently navigates the adrenaline with both comedic flair and eighties fun, igniting chases, fisticuffs and explosions with child-like glee. And though Chopra is given nothing to do but chew the scenery, Efron holds his own against action-stalwart Johnson as they fight the various villains, who are themselves basic, run-of-the mill henchmen. (Side not: I’m not sure it was intentional, but I thought it quite amusing that the villains are all pretty much a mish-mash of anything but Caucasian, whereas the heroes, with the exception of Johnson, are all white — just an example of things you notice when the film can’t hold your attention).
I’m not sure anyone knows what Baywatch was meant to be — a parody of the show, in which they take the essence of what made the series so train-wreck watchable and heighten it to the nth degree, or an action comedy in the vein of eighties buddy-cop flicks. From what I can ascertain, it wanted to be something in the vein of Hot Fuzz, but unlike that film, which did a fantastic job of nurturing the flavor of their source material, Baywatch doesn’t know how to focus its comedic energy in the right places, spending way too much time on dick jokes and not enough time breathing new life into old tricks.
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie and Wonder Woman. If you would like to see a review for tone of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.