The funniest moment in “Baywatch” happens at the end of the opening credits. Head lifeguard Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) is starting his day when he spots a swimmer in peril. In super slow motion, he runs down the beach, dives into the ocean and rescues the man. He emerges from the water like a superhero, the victim cradled in his arms as the music swells. As Johnson gives a powerful stare to the camera, the title — all in caps — rises triumphantly behind him and three dolphins burst from the sea, slamming together in an aquatic high-five. It’s big, it’s bombastic, it’s stupid. It’s exactly what a “Baywatch” movie should be.
Unfortunately, the remaining two hours are a mishmash of unfunny pratfalls, bland action and crass gags that would bore even ardent “Baywatch” enthusiasts Joey and Chandler.
You could hear eyes rolling on both coasts when it was announced that a movie based on the nineties syndicated program was in the works. But really, it’s not surprising that studios would be in the market for a “Baywatch” franchise. In its heyday, the David Hasselhoff/Pamela Anderson actioner was the world’s most popular show (jiggles translate in every language). And even though it’s a good two decades past its prime, the “21 Jump Street” movies proved that tweaking the classics can be both popular and good. With its dim-bulb plots and pin-up-ready cast, “Baywatch” was the (well-toned) butt of pop culture jokes; surely a good comedy could be made from it. Maybe that’s true, but this is not it.
Instead, director Seth Gordon delivers the kind of banal comedy that would have appeared in theaters about the time “Baywatch” was heating up the TV screens. The only difference is that the “Baywatch” movie of 1997 would have starred Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider and been rated PG-13. The “Baywatch” of 2017 stars Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron and has about as many f-bombs as it does shots of cleavage. Both the theoretical move and the real one are horrid.
Johnson, as we said, is Mitch, a living legend; he sleeps with his CB radio on and is quick with a cautionary tale about ocean life. He leads Baywatch, which not only has saved 500 lives since its inception, but also solves crimes with the regularity of the Scooby Doo gang, much to the consternation of the local police chief (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). When hot-shot Olympic gold medalist Matt Brody (Zac Efron) joins up, the young punk must learn to work as part of a team to take down a drug ring.
It shouldn’t be hard to make an entertaining “Baywatch” movie. The series was a collection of random adventures and beach mysteries, absurd eye-candy. Pump it up to extreme levels and it could be a silly “Fast and the Furious”-esque action series, which Johnson knows a thing or two about. Or go the direction that this appeared to be heading and make it a self-aware, meta parody in the vein of “21 Jump Street” or “The Brady Bunch Movie.” Certainly the ideas above could lend themselves to some big laughs.
And while “Baywatch” is certainly more comedy than action flick, it’s unfocused, with a script uninterested in digging into anything too clever. Johnson, who oozes almost as much charisma as he does sweat, is the only actor who’s relatively interesting here, and that’s just because he has a swagger that’s impossible to ignore. But as he’s proven on “Saturday Night Live” and in “Central Intelligence,” he’s also very funny when given the right material. A spin on the series where Mitch is an Adam West-style square, spouting safety lingo an adhering to an unhealthy dedication to his lifeguard calling? That could be absurd and funny. Instead, the film simply hints lets Johnson just be cool, hanging with the lifeguards, pulling pranks on Brody and bragging about his sex life.
I’m not a prude; crass humor sometimes gets a laugh out of me. Lazy humor and crudity for crudity’s sake? Not so much. Here, nearly ever joke thuds. Johnson and Efron have been funny elsewhere; here, they’re left adrift by a script that feels in need of a final draft. The rest of the cast, which includes Alexandra Daddario, Priyanka Chopra and Kelly Rohrback, just sits there looking pretty. John Bass, as an out-of-shape lifeguard chosen because Mitch likes his dedication, mugs for the camera and falls to the ground like a discount version of Josh Gad. Even reliable comedic character actors like Rob Huebel, Hannibal Burress and Oscar Nunez are left to flounder.
Seth Gordon isn’t untalented. He’s directed one legitimately great documentary (“The King of Kong”) and has been involved with TV shows like “The Goldbergs” and “Sneaky Pete.” But his narrative features are often cheap, lazy comedies that only work when his cast knows how to elevate a hacky script (disclosure: I might be the only critic to defend both “Horrible Bosses” movies). Here, with a cast where comedy isn’t the first language, he’s left adrift, throwing slapstick, raunch and easy gags at the screen to see what sticks. Very little does. When that doesn’t work, he tries to summon the cheesy, sincere spirit of the original, but the action is listless and the characters underwritten. Finally, he tosses in cameos from “Baywatch” stars, but they all fizzle. It’s bizarre to say that David Hasselhoff’s one-second cameo in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” has more punch than when he shows up in “Baywatch,” but it’s true.
Johnson has made headlines recently by joking (??) that he’s going to run for president in 2020. Just last week on “Saturday Night Live,” he and “running mate” Tom Hanks played to the fact that Americans would elect them because they can do no wrong. If that’s the case, I’m afraid I have some bad news for the former The Rock: “Baywatch” might be his Watergate.