‘Bay­watch’ knows it’s ‘bad.’ It’s also just bad.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY SCOTT TOBIAS style@wash­post.com

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.

FRANK MASI, SMPSP/PARA­MOUNT PIC­TURES

From left: Jon Bass, Alex Dad­dario, Zac Efron, Dwayne John­son, Kelly Rohrbach and Ilfe­nesh Hadera in “Bay­watch.”

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