‘Baywatch’ Review: Not Even Zac Efron’s Chiseled Abs Can Rescue this Uneven Comedy

Published on May 22, 2017

Help!!!! No, really. Help.

The Baywatch movie desperately needs rescuing. A comedy that should have been two hours of brainless fun in the sun is awash in too many tonal and structural problems. Consider it a wasted chance at, ahem, a bouncy start of the summer season.

Most alarming? Zac Efron’s chiseled abs can’t save it.

(That said, for loyal Efron fanatics, that sentence is a worthy selling point. Tonal and structural problems be damned!)

Oh, Baywatch. ‘Twas a cheesetastic TV show/syndicated global phenomenon that aired from 1991 to 2001 and revolved around a team of elite lifeguards. David Hasselhoff headlined it. Storylines were secondary to the sight of gorgeous, proudly siliconed females in red swimsuits running on the beach in slo-mo. Joey and Chandler obsessed about them on Friends and named their pet duck after Yasmine Bleeth. There were 242 episodes of Baywatch. I defy anyone to name one specific plot. (The One with Pamela Anderson Swimming In the Ocean doesn’t count.)

And yet the adaptation — written by no less than six men — features an overblown dramatic narrative that requires a mild attention span. Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) is the charismatic leader. Do not tease him about the sanctity of this Very Important Job, k? He’s a lieutenant. Mitch winces when Matt Brody (Efron) a disgraced Olympic swimmer with the brain cells and bravura of Ryan Lochte, asks to join in.

Cut to a scene in which a shirtless Johnson and Efron participate in some sort of obstacle course involving lifting tires and climbing across monkey bars. Good times!

Raise your hands if you would have been satisfied with a zippy plot that takes place during a day at the beach in which Matt vows to win over his new boss and the female lifeguards (played by Alexandra Daddario and Kelly Rohrbach, who have little to do but do look gorgeous, fit and answer to the men.) In the climax, he saves a stoned-out Millennial in peril. Easy, done. Instead, Mitch and Matt join forces when they suspect that the new owner of the club (Priyanka Chopra) is the criminal mastermind behind a local drug trafficking operation. Mitch pleads his case to the superiors, who dismiss him and his skills. In turn, Mitch then decides to take matters into his own jumbo-sized hands and recruits his own team to help.

Again, to recap: This is Baywatch. Michael Mann is not giving a once-over on Miami Vice. Nobody wants to see serious big-budget explosions and action scenes. A drug subplot should have been handled in the same this-doesn’t-matter way as 21 Jump Street. Read: A jumping-off point to get to more jokes.

The joy of 21 Jump Street, in fact, was knowing the film was in on its own big joke. Two 30-somethings going undercover in high school isn’t any more ridiculous than beautiful lifeguards able to solve crimes. But this comedy only embraces its not-so-secret identity in uneven doses. It’s a relief when a character observes that the female staffers always jog with perfectly coiffed, wind-swept hair. Obvious? Sure. At least it’s a stab at cheeky humor. The rest of the laughs are painfully broad. Early on, a hapless dude’s penis is caught in a piece of beach equipment. (Only funny if said dude is Ben Stiller in There’s Something About Mary.) More penis punchlines ensue. I suppose with all that female jiggle, the screenwriters aimed for equal opportunity body-part objectification.

Even the requisite wink-wink cameos are wasted. It’s a sad, sad day in moviedom when Hasselhoff is better utilized in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 than in a Baywatch movie. Anderson is way unworthy of her “with….” billing in the opening credits.

At least Efron, bless his blue-eyed soul, once again shows off his funny bone underneath all that sinewy muscle. He’s the only cast member who seems to understand the insipidness of the source material, yucking it up from beginning to end. Johnson only drops his well-honed macho armor when he teases Efron with giggly boy-band nicknames. When he tells his team about the importance of “being a family,” he might as well be quoting dialogue from any of the past three The Fast & Furious films. There’s no doubt the former WWE star is a magnetic screen presence, and his voice work in Moana proves he knows comedy. He should have been the ringleader of laughs here — not the same well-oiled, short-fused muscleman and overzealous authority figure we’ve already seen a dozen times.

Maybe the film was doomed from the moment it started with music other than the series’ familiar power chord-heavy theme song. Let’s see if moviegoers will indeed be there for the new crew.

(Baywatch opens in theaters Thursday, May 25)


Also published on Medium.