For an Ironic Jiggle Flick, Baywatch Is Not Half-Bad

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Zac Efron in Baywatch. Photo: Paramount Pictures

The new Baywatch movie is both a remake and a send-up of the preeningly stupid boobs-and-pecs TV lifeguard drama that was a joke the instant it premiered — though not the kind of joke in which the makers incessantly nudged you in the ribs and flattered you for getting all the meta. This one is so pickled in irony that the characters have to comment on every jiggle. It’s the smart-ass nerd’s Baywatch. The movie is okay, though, if you don’t mind manic pacing and icky dick jokes. (One peen belongs to a corpse.) The idea of lifeguards playing detective is so fundamentally ridiculous that making fun of it never gets old. Anyway, the most important thing is the bods.

In the leads, Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron make a fine pair of chiseled clowns. Johnson’s Mitch Buchannon is the combination mayor and Apollo of Emeralds Bay with the friendliest musclebound lope in movies and ears that prick up at the faintest calls of distress. Efron is Matt Brody, a disgraced Gold Medal swimmer who thinks he’s too good to have to audition to be on Mitch’s elite lifeguard squad. Brody is the butt of most of the gags, with even his over-defined abs coming in for ribbing. Mitch calls him “Bieber,” “One Direction,” etc. — a different emasculating putdown every time. When Brody tells his ravishingly pretty fellow auditioner Summer (Alexandra Daddario) that while there’s no “I” in team there is a “me,” she says, “Are you dyslexic?” I like that joke. I had to think about it for a second, unlike any of the other jokes.

Efron is an undersung actor. He works hard and finds the core of self-loathing in Brody’s boastfulness, and he doesn’t play his big drunk scene as camp. Although their banter is hit-and-miss, he and Johnson work easily and well. Johnson’s voice sounds so uncannily like Barack Obama’s (minus the ponderous uhhhhs) that he might already be crafting a political persona. It’s too bad his Mitch is so weirdly asexual. He has a brief moment of intimacy with Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera), his second-in-command, but you’re supposed to think that his big heart has crowded out his libido. What does it say that the movies can’t seem to find a way to give the Rock a sex life to match his physique?

Hadera’s ultraserious Stephanie could have used a few laugh lines, and it’s too bad that Priyanka Chopra from Quantico has been directed to play the villainess developer/drug dealer as a one-note shrew. The writers go to the other extreme for Kelly Rohrbach’s bombshell CJ Parker: They make her so friendly and vanilla that they kill much of her sex appeal. This Baywatch also gets a blobby hero named Ronnie Greenbaum, played likably but with no particular invention by Jon Bass. His Ronnie is such a generally useless pile of flesh that the idea of CJ only having eyes for him is too disconnected from reality to be funny. Is she mentally defective? If his family had billions, maybe.

In my press notes, director Seth Gordon (Identity Thief) speaks frankly about how Baywatch was mostly known for David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson (both of whom have cameos) but not a lot else, offering a good opportunity to “redefine the brand.” That’s how he directs — like a businessman selling a big new property. There’s one funny action scene in a nursery, in which Mitch and a bad guy pummel each other with baby toys, but the others are a noisy hash. And I was offended by a couple of the early rescue sequences, in which kids bang their heads underwater and float limply while Mitch leaps into the bay and swims toward them in Olympian slow motion. The technique is campy but the sight of kids drowning doesn’t connect with camp. You wonder if the director has kids — or a soul.

By the way, the lifeguard crew leaves the bay for other adventures maybe halfway into Baywatch. They sneak into morgues and fancy balls and other places they’re not wanted. I missed the swimwear and also wondered, Who’s minding the beach? That might seem a silly complaint about such a self-consciously outlandish movie, but when the focal joke of the first half is the characters’ holy devotion to the bay and its swimmers, abandoning it seems like a violation of the whole premise. Besides, it’s a beach movie. You have to protect your brand.

Review: Baywatch Has Ironic Jiggles, a Few Giggles