Baywatch, the internationally syndicated television show of the 1990s, is remembered today primarily for its synthetic body parts and secondarily for its massive viewership (the show boasted a weekly audience, at its height, of 1.1 billion people, spread across 142 countries). What is generally less well recalled, however, at least in the American cultural memory, is the show’s pioneering of a category of entertainment that has since become a favorite of Hollywood: the show that is so bad it’s
good profoundly awesome. Baywatch was so poorly acted that its oily thespians could be seen to be inventing, frame by frame, a novel strain of camp. Its stories were so patently absurd that they occasionally threatened to venture into full-on surrealism. There were, in this show, so many bouncing bodies, so many robotically delivered lines, so many animatronic sharks.
The best thing that can be said about Baywatch, the director Seth Gordon’s cinematic reboot of the TV series, is that it understands, and indeed fully embraces, the show’s awful-awesome aesthetic. The second-best thing that can be said about the feature film, though, is that it does what reboots will always do, purposely or not: to serve as a measure of cultural change. Reboots may be cynical cash grabs, exploiting audiences’ nostalgia for the past, or at least for a time when their bodies better resembled those of, say, David Hasselhoff and Yasmine Bleeth; reboots are also, however, implicit markers of the progress that has been made in the years between the original and the update. The new Baywatch is, say what else you will about it—and there is definitely much to be said, else-wise—a heady mixture of both of those things.
The story goes like this: Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson, radiating his typical, effortless charisma) is the head of Baywatch, an elite crew of lifeguards who—inexplicably but also repeatedly, just as in the TV show—spend much of their time fighting beach-related crimes. As Baywatch opens, Buchanan and his team are looking for new members. Throngs of would-be watchers of the bay come out for the chance to join Mitch, C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach), and Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) in the Spandex-clad squad—among them Summer (Alexandra Daddario), an athlete with a no-nonsense attitude, Ronnie (Jon Bass), a nerd with So Much Heart, and, finally, Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a retired Olympic swimmer in the Ryan Lochte mold, who was a star in individual events but—hold on to your metaphors—let the U.S. team down during the team-relay races. There’s also a drug-running villain (Priyanka Chopra), and a plot twist that—
—but, wait, you didn’t come for the plot. None of us, the writers of this film included, came for the plot. Suffice it to say that Baywatch, as you’d probably expect, features action and adventure and creatively utilized jet skis and a healthy dose of what the Instagrammers call #fitspo. Suffice it to say, too, that there’s a lot of delight to be had in the frothy union of the Bay and the Watch, much of it coming from Johnson, who carries the whole of this movie on his epically chiseled lats.
There’s more than The Rock to admire here, though: Baywatch, compared to its 1990s source material, features a decent amount of diversity in its casting—and it both takes the diversity for granted and also, throughout the film, makes it the subject of light-hearted humor. (“Are you Batman?” a boy asks Mitch, wonderingly, after the lifeguard-hero has rescued him from a watery demise. “Yeah,” Mitch replies, “just bigger and browner.”) Baywatch also features beautiful cinematography—never in the long history of the franchise have cameras so lovingly captured lifeguards’ dives into a crystalline sea—and action scenes that manage to be violent and whimsical at the same time, and a varied and energetic soundtrack, populated by the likes of Pras and Sean Paul and Lionel Richie.
And, of course, this being a reboot: There’s also, inevitably, the winkiness—the playful callbacks to the past, the cheerful fan service, the knowing nods to the terrible/wonderful TV show that serves as the source material for the newer concoction. In Baywatch’s case, the knowingness includes, but is by no means limited to: obligatory shots of the cast running in slow motion, punctuated with characters making jokes about running in slo-mo; characters murmuring about how the plots they are living would make “an entertaining but far-fetched TV show”; and one Baywatch-er marveling of another, capturing the ultimate paradox of the original show’s distinctive aesthetic: “She’s wet ... but not too wet.”
There are also, it must be said, lots of good jokes. If you see Baywatch, you will very probably find yourself laughing. You might even find yourself, multiple times, caught in full, cathartic guffaw. Mitch, throughout the movie, gives ad-hoc new nicknames to Matt, most of them (“One Direction,” “Malibu Ken,” “McDreamy,” “Bieber,” “Baby Groot,” and, yep, “High School Musical”) effectively mocking the character’s uncanny resemblance to Zac Efron. There’s a sun-bleached surfer whose unintelligible English is translated for the audience via subtitles. There’s lowbrow humor and pratfall humor and a fantastic set piece that I will not spoil but that I will simply say involves The Rock and a Sprint store. There’s also, in all this, an infectious sense of fun: The actors here seem to be having the time of their lives as they run around on the beach in a manner that is cheeky in every sense of the word. Their enjoyment leaps off the screen, right into mouths that are gapingly mid-guffaw.
So, then, why does Baywatch currently have a 15 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Why have entire news articles been devoted to the film’s chilly reception among critics? Why did The Daily Beast’s review of the movie scold, “How Dare the Baywatch Movie Be This Bad”?
That would probably have something to do with the other thing mashed into a film that so often tries to have it not just both ways, but all of them: Baywatch relies, ridiculously often, on jokes that put the gag in “gag.” In this R-rated movie that seems determined to make the most of the rating, male characters are accused of possessing “manginas.” Much fun is made of taints and breasts. Even more fun is made, during one scene, of Zac Efron in drag. A hefty percentage of the jokes here, too, take it for granted that the most subversively hilarious thing that can happen in a movie is to show two men kissing and/or one man touching the scrotum of another. Such “edgy” jokes, here, come as a subset of the largest category of gag in this gagtastic film: There are so many penis jokes in this movie. (No, but really: I cannot emphasize enough how many jokes about penises Baywatch managed to pack into 116 minutes of run time.)
So: modern and regressive! Savvy and silly! So knowing, and so deeply ignorant! What it all amounts to, for the viewer, is a rough approximation of being caught in a sparklingly CGI-ed riptide: Just when you’re close to shore, you get sucked out into the depths (where inevitably you will encounter, swimming in the dark water, yet another penis joke). Baywatch casts a woman of color (Hadera, of Chi-Raq and the most recent season of Master of None) as one of its central model-lifeguard-detectives. It then gives her next to nothing to do. The movie celebrates Summer’s athletic prowess at the triathlon-esque auditions Mitch and crew put on to find the next members of the Baywatch squad; it then finds her engaged in an extended conversation with Matt Brody about, yep, her breasts. The film gives Chopra a great, feminist line—“If I were a man, you’d call me driven,” the villain remarks as an enemy questions her villainy—but also features a woman Mitch has rescued fawning to her beefcake of a savior, “Oh, que guapo! If you want me, you can have me!”
So Baywatch is both self-aware and clueless; it is a product of both the 21st century and the 20th; it is populated with both penis jokes that are amusing and penis jokes that, like their subjects, end up lodged, awkwardly and painfully, in the slats of beach furniture. There’s a little bit of Farrelly here, and a little bit of Foucault, and the end result is often delightful but also, just below the glinty surface, deeply confused about what it is and who it is for.
What I am trying to say is that, to the extent that reboots are measures of cultural progress, Baywatch is a movie that is, yes, also a metaphor—a muscle-bound and liberally spray-tanned status update on behalf of all of America. We have come so far, since the ‘90s … but also, Baywatch reminds us, repeatedly, not far enough. Here is a movie that, like the place that created it, is decidedly ambivalent about progress itself. Here is a movie that knows it could be better. Here is a movie that sometimes tries to be. And here is a movie that, disappointingly often, fails. Baywatch has global aspirations, certainly—that is another way it resembles the TV show—and yet to watch it is also to watch the America of 2017 reflected back to itself via taut actors who spend much of the film clad in swimwear of red and blue. As soon as the movie moves forward, it moves back again. Baywatch giveth; it taketh away; it maketh just one more penis joke; and then, giggling, it runs off along the beach, sun-drenched and Spandexed, caught in slow motion—moving, always, but in another way not moving much at all.