By LEOPOLD KNOPP
I really don’t know what to make of this movie. Can’t say it’s everything wrong with 2017 film-making, already did that last week. Can’t really say it’s juvenile, that’s the whole point.
On Emerald Bay, the renowned lifeguard team Baywatch holds grueling tryouts for new members every summer. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Matt Brody (Zac Efron), skilled swimmer Summer Quinn (Alexandria Daddario) and some guy named Ronnie (Josh Gad) —
Wait, that isn’t Josh Gad? Jon Bass? Who is Jon Bass? This guy doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page.
Anyway, those three become Baywatch initiates under the tutelage of Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson), C.J. Parker (Kelly Rohrbach) and Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera). Together, they learn a little about lifeguarding and a lot about extra-judicial police work.
Early in the second act, we get the only scene where “Baywatch” really works. All six lifeguards are having lunch, with Buchanan assigning duties for their investigation of local real-estate mogul and suspected drug runner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra). An incredulous Brody is asking why they don’t leave this to the police, Ronnie is eating a salad in astonishment as the much more beautiful people around him eat burgers and chicken fingers, and Quinn is paying rapt attention to Buchanan.
It’s a perfect setup. You’ve got three characters with built-in arcs and audience-adjacent perspectives as they are just entering the strange world of this movie. Two of them are questioning its most unrealistic elements, and one is fully engaged in the story. If the movie had held onto this dynamic, or any dynamic really, it could have been much better.
Instead, it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do with its characters. It’s tough to connect to anyone when their relationships to the plot and each other are changing in every scene. The only consistent character is Buchanan as the group’s charismatic, convicted leader. The boyish earnestness Johnson brings to every one of his roles makes him the perfect lead for this movie. The man can keep on a straight face through anything at all, and “Baywatch” builds the fun mystery of whether or not it’s meant to be serious around his performance.
Brody is constantly jumping between his vague screw-up arc and being the team realist. Quinn’s character changes with almost every scene. Ronnie is…
We’re absolutely certain that’s not Josh Gad? They wrote in a fat tech guy only there to gawk at his co-workers to pander to fat tech guys who are only in the theater to gawk at the cast members, and they were dedicated enough to the character that they brought in some guy off the street to do it?
But no one cares about the characterizations in “Baywatch.” This is all about re-living the sexual awakening that the show represents for many ’90s teenagers. OK, that’s fine. They do have a lot of pretty people in swimsuits and a lot of slow motion running. But even with that, it’s weirdly asexual.
Sex drive affects basically everything in our culture — cars, jobs, housing, health care, where you go on a Saturday night, it’s all designed around getting people laid or helping them take care of the children they’ve already had to one extent or another. The best movies tap into this subliminally — take “Alien,” which is teeming with sexual imagery, and its sequel “Aliens,” which is all about protecting children, as famous examples.
Sexually charging a movie is a lot like sexually charging anything — it’s delicate. You can’t just shove your private parts in someone’s face and hope they appreciate it, which is all “Baywatch” has to offer. It’s not really going to do the trick for post-pubescent viewers, and it’s rated R, so that’ll be all of them.
Sorry, I just need to be clear on something — is Josh Gad not only seen as a talented actor and a box office draw, but Josh Gad-type characters are considered box office draws? That style of laugh-at-the-fat-guy humor and pity-the-fat-guy storyline is in right now?
One more consistent, really bothersome thing about “Baywatch” is how frequent, how unnecessary and how bad the use of green screen is. The actors are being shot against a green screen instead of a real set for what feels like half of the movie, and you can tell because they get the lighting wrong. The actors are lit very vividly or back-lit, but that light doesn’t hit anything else around them. It’s a pretty amateur mistake and it’s super distracting, especially in a movie that feels the need to use green screen to recreate such easily accessible backdrops as a locker room or the sky.
So those are all my gripes, but they don’t much matter. “Baywatch” is “Baywatch,” for better or worse. It’s a big, dumb movie about pretty people in swimsuits, and that’s what it’s packaged and sold as. You already know whether or not you’re going to enjoy it. And another blockbuster season begins…
For more, check out Leopold Knopp’s movie blog at reelentropy.com.