‘Baywatch’ knows it’s ‘bad.’ It’s also just bad.
The funniest scene in the new “Baywatch” movie comes at the very beginning, when Mitch Buchannon, the leader of an elite team of lifeguards, takes his place atop the stand with the alertness and prideful countenance of a bald eagle. He notices a shift in the wind, which sends a yellow caution flag whipping to the left. He looks to the sky. A parasail lurches backward. Immediately sensing catastrophe, he dashes full speed across the beach, calculating the parachute’s precise trajectory as it heads toward a line of rocks jutting into the ocean. ¶ Mere moments after the occupant lands in the water, smacks his head and loses consciousness, Mitch scoops him up and cradles him in his massive arms like a newborn. As Mitch, Dwayne Johnson emerges from the water like Poseidon himself, with chiseled features glistening in the sun. A wave crests in the background as the title, “Baywatch,” fills the screen in giant block letters. A pod of dolphins pirouette in formation behind him, popping off like a fireworks display. The image couldn’t be any tackier if it were airbrushed on the side of a van or printed on Tshirts at a boardwalk gift shop.
In short order, director Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses”) and his screenwriters, Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, have made it abundantly clear that their “Baywatch” will be irreverent, cool and knowing — everything that the long-running syndicated TV show was not. They snicker at the absurdity of “an elite team of lifeguards” patrolling the beach like superheroes in spandex. They snicker at Mitch’s “Lassie”-like instincts for danger and the absurd, outsize perfection of his body, which resembles a Humvee emerging from a carwash. And most of all, they snicker at the very idea of a “Baywatch” movie, which is almost too stupid to contemplate.
Their instincts are correct: “Baywatch” was a bad television show, a stultifying hour of stock plotting and aquatic derring-do that nonetheless thrived in syndication, due to the appeal of its stars, David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, and its “jiggle TV” prurience. But over 11 seasons and three direct-to-video movies, the show infiltrated the culture, and for risk-averse Hollywood, it’s usually a safe bet to cash in on existing properties. Attempting a straightforward, big-budget version of “Baywatch” would be commercial suicide, so instead, the filmmakers treat it like a piece of cultural flotsam that has washed up on the shore. The tone is affectionate parody, appealing to a certain couch-potato self-awareness. That knowing attitude is key to turning small-screen dross into big-screen gold, and it has become a successful formula of its own.
A quintessentially ’70s show like “The Brady Bunch” would seem woefully out of date two decades later, so “The Brady Bunch Movie” turned that fact into an ingenious premise, casting the family as cheerfully oblivious relics in the modern world. “Charlie’s Angels,” too, could not survive the sexism inherent in three female private eyes responding to the whims of a disembodied male voice, so it made a joke out of the skimpy costumes and martial arts. Few people remember “21 Jump Street” as more than an early springboard for Johnny Depp, but the concept of young undercover cops infiltrating high schools and colleges was enough to revivify the series to hilarious effect.
These films aren’t the first to trade on self-awareness and popculture savvy. A line could be traced from Buster Keaton stepping on and off the screen in “Sherlock Jr.” to the commercial fizz and meta-comedy of Frank Tashlin classics such as “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?,” which played with the audience’s knowledge of TV advertising and celebrity. Then there’s the more recent standard set by the “Wayne’s World” movies, which would often break the fourth wall and speak directly to the camera. When Wayne and Garth, the hosts of a cable-access show, decry selling out to their corporate boss while running through spots for Pizza Hut, Doritos and Reebok, it’s the perfect synthesis of product and products. Just that little wink to the audience makes all the difference.
On top of the throwback subplots and the obligatory cameos from the original stars, comedies such as “The Brady Bunch Movie,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “21 Jump Street” and “Baywatch” all have the same little wink, that moment when the film hips the audience to its own fundamental silliness. In “21 Jump Street,” the deputy chief explains the operation to his young recruits thusly: “We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ‘80s and revamping it for modern times. You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do is recycle s--from the past and expect us not to notice.” In “Baywatch,” another young recruit, played by Zac Efron, tells his fellow lifeguards that their entire operation “sounds like a really entertaining but far-fetched TV show.”
But how deep into this hall of mirrors can we go? “Baywatch” may not attempt the earnest adventure of the original TV show, but there are many times when its irreverence doesn’t make it any brighter — or even much different an experience. When Mitch and the gang try to infiltrate a narcotics ring running out of a fancy resort, we’re meant to laugh over the deliberate silliness of it, but after a while, it doesn’t seem like a joke anymore.
And for as many times as the characters point out the strange phenomenon of beautiful women running in slow motion, the film ends up ogling right alongside them.
Self-awareness allows comedies such as “Baywatch” to absolve themselves of their own sins because they cast their failings as deliberate. But there’s a dangerous tipping point at which a film can become the thing it’s parodying or when revealing cliches becomes a cliche in itself. Quotation marks are not a defense against criticism or a ticket to some topsy-turvy world where up is down and trash is treasure. Sometimes a “bad movie” is just a bad movie.
From left: Jon Bass, Alex Daddario, Zac Efron, Dwayne Johnson, Kelly Rohrbach and Ilfenesh Hadera in “Baywatch.”