Here’s a big-screen adaptation whose source material no one will argue is sacrosanct: The film version of Baywatch is now bouncing into theaters, and it’s about as much fun as getting stung by a jellyfish or run over by a Jet Ski. At one point, Zac Efron’s character lay in a morgue drawer while fluids from a cadaver dripped into his mouth and I wondered why he didn’t turn his head or at least cover his face. Then I thought: Who am I to judge? I’m still here watching, after all.
A perfectly viable model exists for turning a corny TV series into a lively movie: 21 Jump Street, the 2012 film with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, which married a sustained spoof of the undercover-cop genre to wised-up, funny dialogue. The 2003–2009 Comedy Central series Reno 911! and its 2007 movie adaptation Reno 911!: Miami were also occasionally hilarious as they sent up low-brow hot-pursuit television. Two of that franchise’s creators, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, contributed to the script of Baywatch. Yet they were evidently pushed off to the side, given partial story credit instead of screenplay credit.
The movie version of Baywatch isn’t, with momentary exceptions, a spoof; it’s essentially just a really long, big-budget version of the TV show about heroic lifeguards (inexplicably doing police work) plus some witless banter and a few gross-out gags. It’s built around the idea that a dopey, tedious sub–Miami Vice plot about a sexy lady drug kingpin amid palm trees and sunshine is still as fresh as it was in 1989 when the TV series premiered on NBC, and its big action sequences (helicopters, explosions at sea) look expensive without ever being exciting or even interesting. In short, it seems perfectly content to be just as bad as its source, one of the most legendarily awful shows ever to enjoy a lengthy run, albeit mostly in the undemanding provinces of first-run syndication, where it remained like a persistent case of eczema for ten seasons after NBC canceled it one year in.
This time, David Hasselhoff’s lord of the beaches Mitch is played by Dwayne Johnson, whose chief lifeguard is so finely tuned to the dangers lurking in the surf that he runs to the scene of an accident before it has even occurred. He is forced to accept as a new member of his lifeguard posse a disgraced Olympic swimmer, Matt Brody (Efron), who is serving a stint on the crew as community service following a run-in with the law. The other lifeguards consist of gorgeous women (including Alexandra Daddario and Kelly Rohrbach, each of whom is more a swimwear model than an actress) and a lumpy, nervous I.T. nerd (Jon Bass) whom the producers apparently hired in the hope that he’d be the next Jonah Hill.
He isn’t. His character spends an agonizing several minutes with his manhood stuck in a wooden chaise longue, and the debt to a similar scene involving Ben Stiller in There’s Something About Mary is so obvious that you will wince not in empathetic pain but at the lack of originality. Then you’ll wince again when you realize Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, who are credited with the screenplay, haven’t actually come up with any ideas for where to take the scene. The director, Seth Gordon, whose credits include Four Christmases and Horrible Bosses, nevertheless keeps it dragging on for several desultory minutes.
Johnson’s easy charm, meanwhile, barely survives the atrocious dialogue (“Call me on the shell phone” is a joke the writers think so brilliant they use it twice), and other than his presence the movie has nothing going for it whatsoever. Long periods go by when nothing happens that’s even close to being funny, and in an already needlessly stretched-out movie, set pieces such as a fist fight in a baby’s bedroom are so thinly developed that it’s as if Gordon staged them improvisationally, hoping something funny would happen in the moment. Efron, never a great comic actor, is getting less and less charming the more muscle he packs on. He seems to be trying to bring intensity instead of laughs to the role, but his clenched determination makes his spoiled, irritating character that much worse.
The film’s big lesson, which Brody learns at great length, is that there is no I in team. True enough, but in Baywatch, there is contained a question: Y Watch?