Baywatch’s Cultural Blindness

Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron in Baywatch (Photo: Frank Masi/Paramount)
The Hollywood version of the ’90s TV series panders to prurience and the longing for escape.

The new Baywatch movie, a reboot of the Nineties beach-set crime-and-melodrama TV series, continues Hollywood’s unoriginal marketing. It holds momentary interest for the way it adapts television culture (free, meaningless distraction) for a new era.

On the big screen, Baywatch might seem a variation on its cathode-ray source simply because it stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Hollywood’s leading exponent of biracial diversity, and Zac Efron, Hollywood’s newest male pin-up. Respectively, they play lifeguards Mitch and Matt — not entirely interchangeable but alliterative nonentities who bring little distinction to the basic formula. The combination of over-the-top action-movie stunts and crass humor is shameless, both below-the-belt and beneath most folks’ IQs.

Hollywood movies have become television at just the point when media shills are spreading the fake news that we’re experiencing a “new golden age” of TV. These shills don’t call it a “renaissance,” because that word might intimidate victims of our failed education system and even cynics realize that nothing gets reborn in Hollywood, that recycling is not the same as being given new life.

Yet the level of audacity in the Baywatch movie, directed by Seth Gordon with the same insipidness he brought to Identity Thief and Horrible Bosses, is greater than in the cornball TV series. And Johnson’s and Efron’s exaggerated beefcake and lame ethnic contrasts add to the overkill. Only a child mired in TV culture’s hard sell would find any of this unique. Such unenlightened appreciation would be a sign of the cultural catastrophe in which old television shows are granted the same interest that Hollywood used to give to classic drama and literature. This pop-culture emergency is more urgent that the film’s plot, in which the team of lifeguards oppose a drug dealer (Priyanka Chopra), an idea rehashed from last month’s movie version of the TV series CHiPs.

What Millennial children and hack reviewers don’t admit is that this shift of values, the inevitable triumph of assaults on the cultural canon (the old low- vs. high-culture debate), defines a state of widespread desperation: Hollywood is desperate to make money, without the risk of creativity, and audiences are eager to be distracted from their daily, dangerous, antagonistic, collapsing reality. Baywatch, while offering incessant juvenile sitcom bromides about competition (competence) and sex (relationships), disguises those concerns while making them trite. It plays the audience cheap.

The pandering involved in making a film version of a TV series cravenly calculates the public’s taste for T & A and chase scenes. This blatancy is regressive. A Baywatch movie works backward from the Sixties beach-movie series Gidget that then became a TV show. The display of muscle strain during a Rock vs. Zac beach competition is worse than obvious; it’s not as light-hearted as the beach competition in Dirty Grandpa, and it misses the reality-show tension of Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge.

Neither Johnson’s Mitch nor Efron’s Matt shows the depth that might make audiences relate to them as people.

If Baywatch were better than junk, it might deserve a semiotic analysis of its leisure-place setting, diversity casting, and smutty premise that devolves into law-and-order banality. But we are at a stage of escapist desperation that a critic has to wonder whether that desperation is worth exposing. Neither Johnson’s Mitch nor Efron’s Matt shows the depth that might make audiences relate to them as people. (That was the surprise of Johnson’s characterization in Michael Bay’s superb Pain & Gain, in which he played muscle-head psychosis as a symptom of greed and insecurity — a modern condition made revelatory and funny.)

It won’t do to dismiss Baywatch as the start of the summer inanity (movie inanity is a year-long problem). But consider the beach-movie idea to which Baywatch is historically inferior. Alexander Mackendrick’s sex farce Don’t Make Waves (1967) depicted the edifice of American morality as nearing collapse. In Daniel Petrie’s The Lifeguard (1977), a rare character study of male concupiscence, the casually macho Sam Elliott faces moral obligation. And, best of all, recall Eric Rohmer’s serene, erotic farce Pauline at the Beach (1983). All dealt with the sexual mores of their times, but TV culture never gets that deep and apparently has not inspired erotic reflection even in a reboot.

There are going to be more and more movies like this, many from TV series, most from comic books. But the lesson that must be learned is that escapism — especially when it’s TV-based — amounts to cultural idiocy. Despite its sun-bright carousing, cuss words, and explosions, Baywatch merely takes its cue from TV manipulation of the shut-in’s — and the adolescent’s — sexual prurience. These hedonistic beach-bunny hijinks are Hollywood’s own winking equivalent of the 72-virgins promise that inveigles terrorists.

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