‘Baywatch’ Finds the Fun in Asininity (FILM REVIEW)

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I used to know a guy who loved to make jokes, despite being consistently awful at them. No amount of groaning or grumbling could ever convince him to stop his awful attempts at humor, and if you hung around him long enough eventually your defenses would fall and you would laugh. Sometimes you’d be laughing with him, but most times it was so awful that you were laughing at him. He didn’t much care, so long as you were laughing. I thought about him a lot while viewing Baywatch.

Baywatch is positively relentless in its attempts at skewering the 90s camp classic that shot Pamela Anderson to superstardom and reignited the long dormant career of David Hasslehoff. Not all of those attempts are successful—most aren’t, in fact. But there’s an earnestness to the film’s efforts that whittled away my natural skepticism over the two-hour runtime. Much like an afternoon with my old friend, my groans gave way to a kind of acceptance and turned into laughs.

It’s not rightly a case of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome—even as I chuckled at the dumbest and most mindless of gags, I was aware of how awful it was. At no point was I tricked into thinking that Baywatch was fine cinema or even good populism. But it wears its badness on its sleeves, which almost creates a kind of charm that’s hard to ignore.

It could be argued that this is a result of its source material. After all, Baywatch represented the worst of 90s excess, casting a ragtag team of beautiful lifeguards as a first (or occasionally last) line of defense against all manner of nefarious nogoodniks. It was, in a word, awful, despite being at one time the most popular show on the planet. That makes whatever faults this adaptation has seem a bit on brand.

This version follows more or less the same conceit as its predecessor, subbing out The Rock for Hasslehoff and adding Zac Efron as a hapless, disgraced former Olympian looking to restore his name with some community service. He’s rightly baffled to find that his lifeguarding job will also entail some light to heavy police work, which eventually leads them to the nefarious Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) who plans to use drugs to drag down the property value of the beach and its surrounding areas in order to buy it up and make it a private resort.

The biggest sin of Baywatch is that it never goes far enough. It’s the kind of film that sits within the eyesight of genius but lacks the courage to take the necessary steps. Like a new swimmer who wants to enjoy the deep end but can barely stay afloat, it splashes around the shallow edges and tries to have a good time. More than that, it convinces itself that it is having a good time, and it’s almost infectious.

It’s maddening, because its proximity to where it knows it needs to be is so close that you can see it. The possibility of another 21 Jump Street is very near, and everyone involved seems to hope that can make the jump. Instead of playing on the batshit absurdity of the source material, however, it takes a straighter path, substituting depth with crass edginess that’s oh-so-played-out. It’s the kind of movie that asks, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if The Rock made Zac Efron play with a dead guy’s balls?”

Well, no, in fact. It’s not funny. Except…both The Rock and Zac Efron are so set on the fact that it is funny that it almost becomes funny. Not for the reasons they think, clearly. It’s an exasperating, confounding kind of funny, to be sure; one that finds you laughing at not only the utter ridiculousness of it all but at the commitment of its stars. You can’t believe you’re seeing something so stupid, and it’s compounded by the fact that those involved are so goddamn excited about it. That’s how the majority of the gags play out, and it would be tedious if the cast wasn’t as charming as they are.

With a better script, it could have been transcendent. The screenplay is a total hack job, with the final product from Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (Freddy vs. Jason) being a band-aid for its previous iterations—one of which was from Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, who both graduated from The State and Reno 911 to become two of the knowingly worst writers in Hollywood. They, so far, haven’t met a crap idea they wouldn’t take money for, and their resume reflects that nicely. (That they took over from the writing team who brought us Norbit should be an indication of where this movie is coming from.)

With the hack and slash job of the three teams at play, the script itself becomes a muddled mess that moves aimlessly from A to B without much need for anything to make sense—and nothing does. But it’s hard to deny how charming The Rock and Efron are in their efforts. Any other cast might have sent this down of eddy of irredeemability, but in their hands, something, at least, is salvaged.

Nothing worthwhile, of course, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh. Kind of a lot. Like my friend from high school, I was rarely laughing with the movie, but that seemed to be just fine for them so long as I was laughing. It’s mindless, stupid, and absolutely awful, granted, but as long as you’re okay with that then Baywatch is, too.

Baywatch is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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