Now With Less Boobs! Case File #93 Baywatch (2017)
For a magical decade, the popular television program Baywatch served an important, even essential purpose not just in the United States but internationally as well. David Hasselhoff’s iconically cheesy beach show helped people all over the world engage in the sin on onanism. For ten years (twelve if we include Baywatch: Hawaii) the show served as a beloved ambassador of American culture that gave masturbation enthusiasts from Paris to Dubai a veritable buffet of glistening pectoral muscles, taut behinds and wet, glistening cleavage to watch while they pleasured themselves feverishly.
That was Baywatch’s role in our culture, and others: it aided in masturbation. That was its job. It was very good at it. As a TV show it was terrible. As a masturbation aid, it couldn't be beat (no pun intended). How good was Baywatch at helping people masturbate? Despite being universally considered almost unwatchable, Baywatch was among the most popular television shows in the world for a depressingly long stretch of time.
Then something happened that changed Baywatch and its core appeal forever: the Internet. In addition to forever changing the way we communicate, live and love, the Internet proved to be the greatest masturbation aid in all of human history. No longer would the masturbation aids of desperate, compulsive masturbators like the fourteen year old me be limited to the hypnotic, glistening cleavage of Baywatch, the even more hypnotic, even more glistening cleavage of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and various “erotic thrillers” on home video or late night Cinemax.
No, thanks to the Internet, if a teenaged masturbator wants something to aid them in their passion, they can just log online and have instant access to a staggeringly and depressingly diverse assortment of pornography, much of it hardcore and explicit. The ubiquity of pornography online consequently robbed Baywatch of its central appeal.
Masturbators didn’t need Baywatch anymore. They had an almost unlimited number of other options. But if the Internet’s pornographic nature rendered Baywatch even more screamingly pointless and unnecessary than ever before, it nevertheless remained something our culture values to an absurd degree: famous.
Everyone, but everyone, knows Baywatch. True, they know it primarily as a joke/walking punchline/masturbation aid, but in a world where familiar pop culture properties are valued the way grizzled old miners in classic westerns valued gold, Baywatch’s huge name recognition made it irresistible to movie studios.
And so, beginning in 2004, Hollywood, that selfless servant of the American people and maker of fine art and entertainment, began the long, complicated process of answering the angry demands of the unwashed masses by transforming a campy television show remembered primarily for the heroic work it performed aiding in self-pleasuring, into a big-budget, high-concept cinematic franchise.
But what is Baywatch in 2017? What’s its identity? That’s a question a production team that includes producer Ivan Reitman, Executive Producer Dwayne Johnson, co-producer Eli Roth and co-story-writers Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have clearly been wrestling with for years. In 2012, however, the filmmakers seemed to have gotten their answer as to what a Baywatch movie would look and feel like when 21 Jump Street took a campy walking punchline of a TV show from our recent past and transformed it into a hip, funny, fresh and very clever meta-meditation on the ridiculousness of 21 Jump Street in particular and mismatched buddy cop movies in general.
The brain trust behind Baywatch clearly decided at some point that their movie was going to be just like 21 Jump Street, only on the beach, and with lifeguards instead of cops, albeit lifeguards who act so much like cops that this disconnect is called out constantly in the film’s dialogue in just one of six or seven screamingly obvious, painful running jokes that clumsily announce themselves and and die an awful, extended death from over-repetition over the film’s nearly two hour running time.
Remember how Baywatch was famous for its lingering shots of buxom women running in slow-motion along the beach? Baywatch sure hopes you do because it is deeply committed to making all of the jokes you would imagine a tongue-in-cheek film version of Baywatch would make, and then making those same jokes over and over. The Baywatch film, for example, is full of self-referential dialogue about how strange it is that women seem to running in slow-motion, or super-slow-motion, in real life, and kind of expects you to nod approvingly and give it a cookie for making jokes and also being in on the joke.
Hey, you know what movie has no fucking business being nearly two hours long? Fucking Baywatch but it does have an awful lot of plot to get through and I think we’d all be bitterly disappointed if the movie short-changed the dramatic arcs of stars Dwayne “Apparently No Longer the Rock Now But I Will Always Clumsily Find A Way to Reference His Longtime Wrestling Moniker All The Same No Matter How Awkward It Looks Or Reads” Johnson and Zac Efron. Because God knows nothing screams “hilarity” quite like a series of emotionally charged scenes where Johnson’s character, as the gruff but loving mentor, takes his young protege to task for his selfishness and inability to see beyond his own needs.
Dwayne Johnson lends his mega-watt presence, enormous, quivering muscles, nuclear power charisma and innate likability to the role of Mitch Buchannon, the towering slab of beefcake David Hasselhoff made famous on the small screen. I love Johnson as an actor despite the often sub-par nature of his films but the roles and movies that I love him in, like Southland Tales, The Other Guys and Be Cool, play smartly against his macho persona and innate cockiness.
Baywatch finds Johnson at his most boring and least engaging. He’s supposed to be playing a comically over-the-top burlesque of uber-masculine self-assurance, a Superman of the beach and surf who’s less an impossibly accomplished lifeguard than some manner of man-God, Neptune rendered human. Instead, Mitch just seems like the typical hard-ass Johnson plays in his weakest movies, albeit twenty-percent more ironic.
Johnson is joined by Zac Efron as Matt Brody, whom none of you will remember as the younger lifeguard David Charvet played on the TV show. Brody is re-conceived as a world-class swimmer turned world-class fuck up notorious for vomiting in a pool after a night of partying way too hard.
In theory at least, there’s a lot of promise to a character like that and in a good movie the impossibly handsome, impossibly chiseled Efron would be the perfect choice to play a satirical take on a Ryan Lochte-style sexy doofus. But Brody’s backstory barely factors into the rest of the movie and for the most part he just follows the predictable beats of a cocky, arrogant but good-hearted rookie cop of the mismatched buddy cop movie Baywatch suspiciously resembles.
As a mismatched comedy duo, Johnson and Efron are suspiciously well-matched. One is a cocky alpha-male with the body of Adonis. The other is also an alpha male with the body of an Adonis but is even larger.
The movie opens with the disgraced Brody being forced upon super-lifeguard Mitch (Johnson) as a PR stunt by a sleazy weasel played by a type-cast Rob Huebel. Mitch is initially displeased because the lifeguard team is a family, saving people is serious business, he doesn’t like Brody’s attitude and the rest of the usual bullshit.
In the kind of gag that has become groaningly ubiquitous in sloppy, partially improvised comedies like this, Mitch sasses Brody by calling him not by his name, but by the name of a bunch of teenybopper phenomenon: N’Sync, New Kids on the Block, Malibu Ken, Bieber, and in a particularly groan-inducing bit of meta-commentary, High School Musical, the Disney tween sensation that made it possible for Efron to someday co-top-line an awful flop like Baywatch.
In a Judd Apatow comedy, these mocking pretty-boy nicknames would be dispensed, one after another, in a smart-ass staccato rhythm appropriating the good-natured joshing of dudes giving each other the business. Even at its best, it’s an exhausted contemporary cliche but Baywatch renders it even more obnoxious by stretching it out over the course of the entire film.
Baywatch doesn’t just unsuccessfully attempt to borrow a tone, aesthetic and comic sensibility from 21 Jump Street. It also borrows a fair number of specifics. 21 Jump Street found a mismatched pair going undercover to investigate a dangerous, fictional, invented drug called HFS. Baywatch, in sharp contrast, is about a theoretically mismatched lifeguard duo that goes undercover to investigate murders possibly connected to a new, fictional, invented drug called Flakka.
Johnson’s defining feature as an actor and a performer, beyond his confidence, lies in his self-awareness. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s always in on the joke, and there’s a winking, ironic distance to just about everything that he does. David Hasselhoff’s defining characteristic as a performer, in sharp contrast, is that he most assuredly is not in on the joke.
This was made achingly apparent in Hasselhoff’s memoir Don’t Hassle The Hoff, which I covered for Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club because, c’mon, how are you going to not read and write about something called Don’t Hassle the Hoff? In his unintentionally hilarious, exquisitely oblivious tome, Hasselhoff waxes self-righteous about how Baywatch isn’t a dumb, escapist exercise in T&A and blatant objectification but rather a beloved and important family show watched primarily by children with all manner of important messages to impart on audiences about teamwork and community service and self-sacrifice.
Hasselhoff seems horrified by the mere suggestion that the primary appeal of Baywatch would be naked female flesh and not top-tier storytelling and thrilling adventure set-pieces. The crazy thing about Baywatch is that it simultaneously attempts to realize both Hasselhoff’s boring, self-aggrandizing and deluded conception of Baywatch as a serious, important action-adventure show with a social conscience and its shameless desire to be 21 Jump Street on the beach.
Baywatch is consequently a film divided against itself. The glib, never-funny meta comedy slows to a halt for the many straight-faced action sequences and the film’s weird sincerity when it comes to delivering the straight-forward action goods similarly kills the film’s non-existent comic momentum.
The movie goes out of its way to objectify men more than women. Baywatch replaces the male gaze with the female gaze yet ends up strangely asexual, not unlike the original TV series, which was full of sexual elements but also weird non-sexual. Baywatch lacks what has historically made Baywatch Baywatch: starlets with enormous fake breasts bursting out of their tight red bathing suits. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if this were a fun satire, but it’s not, and there’s nothing to replace the mindless cheesecake and T&A that defined the original series.
Baywatch is so boring that Gigli actually qualifies as an infinitely more compelling, entertaining riff on the camp legacy of the 1990s camp institution. Gigli is fucking awful, but at least it’s not boring, although, honestly, I would elevate Baywatch to the upper echelons of Secret Successes (right up there with Freddy Got Fingered and Corey Feldman’s last album) if it ended with a Gigli crossover where Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez take Justin Bartha’s character to the beach and the movie closes with Johnson telling him, “You’ve finally made it to the Baywatch, friend! May your penis sneeze constantly, with the assistance of the many lovely ladies of the beach.” That would have been a genius fucking meta-textual gag.
In an all too characteristic bit of dialogue early in the film, Johnson’s super-lifeguard angrily lectures, “Do the bare minimum as a lifeguard and sometimes people die.” On a similar note, do the bare minimum as a filmmaker, and sometimes movies die at the box-office, and deservedly so. An R-rated Baywatch that doesn’t even succeed in helping people masturbate, and that is absolutely useless when it comes to helping people’s penis sneeze, is utterly beyond repair.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
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