Few actors enjoy a more cozy relationship with the press than Dwayne Johnson. The charismatic wrestler turned movie star is regularly covered in the most glowing terms, whether the media is beseeching him to host the Oscars, approving of his potential bid for the presidency, or taking his side in a feud with costar Vin Diesel. Even when the movies he makes are subpar, Johnson’s likability never takes a hit. Who’d want to be on the Rock’s bad side?
This past week, though, something did seem to get under Johnson’s elaborately tattooed skin. With his new action-comedy Baywatch tracking poorly, Johnson went to Twitter to blast the bad reviews. “Oh boy, critics had their venom & knives ready,” he tweeted. “Fans LOVE the movie … big disconnect w/ critics & people.” Though Johnson tried to leaven the tweet with a few good-natured emojis, it felt unusually unchill of him to accuse film critics of having a sinister agenda. Perhaps Johnson does have a future in politics, because turning on the press when things get tough is one of our current president’s signature moves.
As it happened, that was just the opening salvo in a blame-the-critics excuse that would be trotted out all weekend. Both Baywatch and its competitor Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales underperformed at the box office, the former pulling in just $18 million from Friday to Sunday and the latter netting $62 million, a precipitous drop from the last few Pirates sequels. Reps for both movies laid the blame squarely at critic-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, where Pirates got a 39 percent fresh rating and Baywatch managed only 19 percent. “Many of those in the know question how Rotten Tomatoes computes its ratings, and the fact that these scores run on Fandango (which owns RT) is an even bigger problem,” wrote Deadline’s Anthony D’Allesandro, who studio executives regularly spend their Sundays spinning to. Added the reporter, “Over the weekend, I heard that some studio insiders want to hold off critic screenings until opening day or cancel them altogether.”
Blaming the press for their own missteps and then threatening to suspend all access if coverage isn’t positive? Okay, I spoke too soon: Now we’re really wading into Trump territory. To blast critics for the failures of these movies is like blasting your dentist for noticing a cavity, and there were plenty of problems with both Baywatch and Pirates before they ever screened for press. To wit:
What’s the crucial difference between the ailing Baywatch and 21 Jump Street, the hit franchise it was clearly built to emulate? Simple: 21 Jump Street put out funny trailers, and Baywatch never did. When you’re trying to convince people that you’ve taken disreputable source material and done something clever with it, the marketing materials need to actually show something clever. And just as the success of 1995’s winking The Brady Bunch Movie spawned plenty of dunderheaded sitcom-to-screen transfers that nobody wanted (McHale’s Navy, really?), so has 21 Jump Street begat films like CHiPS and Baywatch that just come off like stale buddy comedies with a trash-TV twist. Audiences know better.
The same goes for Pirates, a franchise that has been experiencing diminishing returns since 2007’s At World End, which tied up an original planned trilogy. Reluctant to part with one of their biggest cash cows, Disney and Johnny Depp have made two films since that intended series capper, but they’ve never been able to prove why those extra sequels ought to exist, and box-office results have fallen off accordingly. For Dead Men Tell No Tales, the series added yet another pair of generically good-looking young lovers (succeeding the first trilogy’s Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley and the fourth movie’s Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey) as well as another effects-heavy villain in Javier Bardem, leaving the marketing campaign without any sort of new hook to sell. Domestic audiences can smell the cynical cash grab.
While Johnson has proven his mettle in other big movies, Efron is not a major draw for the young men that Baywatch was aimed at. His only significant hit was the first Neighbors, which got a lot of mileage out of his mismatch with the schlubby-funny Seth Rogen; by the time they sequelized it two years later, the joke was over, and Neighbors 2 made barely a third of the original. Johnson, too, is more appealing in films with a good comic mismatch (like Central Intelligence, where he was the perfect foil to Kevin Hart) or movies where his co-star simply reinforces the right aspect of his image (like in Fast and Furious, where Vin Diesel simply double-underlines Johnson’s action bona fides). Casting Johnson and Efron opposite each other is a comic nonstarter: When you put the pair of them together, all you see is two guys who must spend half their days thinking about their bodies.
Little more needs to be said about Depp’s waning star appeal, which had already been whittled down by flops like The Tourist and Transcendence but took a further hit after spousal-abuse allegations and headlines about profligate spending. If people don’t even want to see your full face on a billboard anymore, they won’t rush to see it in theaters, either.
We’ve saved the biggest no-brainer for last: Baywatch and Pirates were badly reviewed because they’re not good … and it ain’t the critics who made those movies. Baywatch director Seth Gordon has only made one well-reviewed movie — the first Horrible Bosses, which barely attained a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — and three empty star comedies: Four Christmases, Identity Thief, and now Baywatch. That the first two of those were successful is a testament to their stars, not their quality. That Baywatch wasn’t is proof that even star appeal can only take you so far.
As for Pirates, if Depp can barely be bothered to go to set and is giving such a phoned-in performance that he’s allegedly being fed lines via earpiece, what reason is there for anyone else to be giving this enterprise their best work? These movies are only being made now so the invested principals can afford more houses; they aren’t being made to please audiences, and they certainly aren’t bombing because critics didn’t like them. Give us a good movie, and we’ll support it. Give us a bad one, and audiences won’t need critics to confirm their palpable disinterest.