Running for 12 seasons starting in 1989, “Baywatch” was once deemed the most-watched TV show in the world due to its weekly audience of 1.1 billion people in 148 countries, for whom it was translated into 44 different languages. Centered on the adventures of lifeguards who all had way more looks than brains, it was a prime example that aiming for the lowest common denominator can be enormously profitable.
That maddening fact is no doubt what drove Paramount Pictures to bring “Baywatch” back to life on the big screen this weekend. The new incarnation teams Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron as lifeguards with clashing styles in an attempt to add a layer of ridiculous, self-knowing comedy to the slow-motion running, skimpy outfits and ocean heroics. Unfortunately, the result is a case of trying to do too much and succeeding at nothing.
Johnson replaces David Hasselhoff in the lead role of Mitch Buchannon, the longtime leader of the Baywatch lifeguard squad, and we’re quickly shown that he’s worshipped everywhere he goes as a badass lifesaver who’s also great at basketball, making ladies swoon and relating to kids. He almost immediately finds that a slickly packaged baggie of a new illegal drug has washed up on the beach, and wants to find the source.
But before he can launch his investigation, Efron shows up as a new, impossibly buff and incredibly stupid guy named Matt Brody, who was a two-time Olympic champion swimmer before an embarrassing televised incident in which he vomited in a pool and kept swimming. Despite that, Mitch’s suit-wearing boss Captain Thorpe (Rob Huebel) thinks having an Olympian on the squad will be great publicity for the Baywatch team and orders Mitch to add him without the required physical tryout.
Brody’s cockiness clashes with Mitch’s attempts to take the job seriously, and results in a nonstop parade of pretty-boy insults from Mitch that generated only one big laugh from the audience. Meanwhile, a pudgy loser named Ronnie (Jon Bass) is added to the team due to his sheer determination, setting up a series of awkward encounters with his lust interest CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) that are embarrassing for both his character and the audience to endure.
The Baywatch gang ultimately set its sights on new local club owner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) as their chief suspect, as bodies start to pile up. The scenes where she appears to act nefariously with her henchmen and victims are played so broadly that they feel like a live-action version of a “Scooby-Doo” villain, ensuring “Baywatch” doesn’t have one second of suspense or mystery along the way.
What it does have is a constant jarring clash of tones as director Seth Gordon — who has done great work helming two of my favorite recent comedies, “Horrible Bosses” and “Identity Thief” — and a staggering total of six writers veer wildly between slow-motion action scenes and incredibly vulgar attempts at laughs. It’s bad enough watching Efron being tricked into examining a male corpse’s genitals for needle marks so Johnson can post photos of his cringing on Snapchat, but it’s painful to experience it when literally no one in the audience is laughing.
At least that lack of laughter provides hope that there are still some standards for what audiences will find funny these days. An even more embarrassing sequence involving Ronnie getting a thankfully clothed erection trapped between the slats of a wooden chair and having Mitch lead the crew in multiple attempts to free it has to be a career low for Johnson.
Clearly, the writers believe that young audiences won’t know that “There’s Something About Mary” turned its own “franks and beans” scene into comic gold nearly 20 years ago, and they and Gordon certainly don’t know how to finesse the fine line between good gross-out humor and bad.
In fact, “Baywatch” is so off-base on every level that it nearly made me want to quit my career as a film critic. The only reasons I stayed in the theater more than 15 minutes were the need to write a review, and the presence of a Paramount executive seated directly behind me, hopefully considering a change of career himself. Grade: F
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES
Stars: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem
Length: 129 minutes
Directed by: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg
The fifth film in the series has Captain Jack Sparrow teaming with the son of Will Turner, a female accused of witchcraft and his crew in a race to find the mythical trident of Poseidon before his nemesis Captain Salazar, and break a slew of curses. The setpieces are often funny and the finale visually spectacular, but Depp is hanging on to this series as a source of treasure more than inspiration. Grade: B
Stars: Danny McBride, Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Length: 122 minutes
Directed by: Ridley Scott
The second film in the “Alien” prequel trilogy that launched with “Prometheus” brings director Ridley Scott back again to show how the aliens evolved into their famed terrifying state, while they wipe out another crew of humans. The sixth film in the franchise means it’s hard to find surprises, and none of the stars stand out like Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ripley, but fans will still find lots of moody scares. Grade: B
Stars: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Christopher Meloni, Ike Barinholtz
Length: 90 minutes
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
The return of comic icon Goldie Hawn after 15 years away from the big screen teams her with current comedy superstar Amy Schumer as a mother and daughter who take a disastrous vacation to Ecuador.
While Hawn has some solid moments and there are funny turns by supporting actors, too much of the writing veers from crude to lazy and uninspired. Grade: C
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker
Length: 136 minutes
Directed by: James Gunn
The sequel to the quirky 2014 superhero smash finds the ragtag band of antiheroes dealing with family issues beneath all the laughs and action, as Kurt Russell shows up as a god named Ego, claiming to be Peter Quill’s (Pratt) long-lost father. Whether his intentions are noble is a big question, Gamora (Saldana) has to contend with her evil sister as well. Punchier and funnier, the film defines swagger. Grade: A
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS
Stars: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, Kurt Russell
Length: 136 minutes
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
The eight film in the “Fast and Furious” franchise is also the first to arrive fully without original star Paul Walker as Brian, leaving a key level of humanity out and resulting in mostly mayhem throughout. Loud and frenetic as always,the wheels are starting to come off with a near-total lapse in logic and Charlize Theron is utterly wasted in her role as this edition’s villain, a super-hacker named Cipher. Grade: D