I don’t blame 21 Jump Street for the existence of Baywatch. Studios only see formulas, not how the pieces work together. They saw an R-rated comedy based off a late-80s/early-90s kitschy TV show, and one should work just as well as another. Unfortunately, whereas 21 Jump Street knows how to manage weird jokes, subvert action tropes, and build a worthwhile story between its two leads, Baywatch has no idea what to do beyond saying “fuck” a lot and having Dwayne Johnson rag on Zac Efron. The movie feels like an odd mish-mash of scripts, with one story being more of a buddy flick while another tries to create a team dynamic. Perhaps there’s some version of Baywatch that works, but it’s not the one director Seth Gordon ended up with.
Mitch Buchannon (Johnson) is the hero Emerald Bay, greeting every friendly face and recognized as a local legend thanks to all of the people he’s saved. His lifeguarding unit, which already includes the beautiful and highly competent Stephanie Holen (Ilfenesh Hadera) and CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), is looking for new recruits. There’s eager Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario), the nerdy but also eager Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass), and then there’s disgraced Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Efron), who’s doing it as part of his probation. When drugs start finding their way into the bay community, Mitch takes it upon himself to bring down the source, powerful businesswoman Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), despite the protestations of local cop Sgt. Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
The biggest problem with the movie is that it doesn’t even know what kind of film it wants to be. 21 Jump Street looks at the ridiculousness of its situation, and playfully mocks it throughout, but doesn’t draw direct attention to the lack of reality. It has one scene that leans heavily on its meta-textuality (when the sergeant talks about the boys upstairs being out of ideas), and then it’s more about the relationship between Schmidt and Jenko.
Baywatch, on the other hand, is a comedy in search of an ideology. In the opening scene, it looks like it’s going to be an over the top, gleeful parody with dolphins high-fiving as the title slams down behind Mitch, who’s carrying an injured parasailor to safety. But then the movie will repeatedly to return to the notion that cops, not lifeguards, should be solving the case of drugs leaking into the bay. It doesn’t know if should deflate the bombast of its comedy or go for broke. This leaves it awkwardly standing in the middle ground, clinging to any dick joke it can find for safety.
Unfortunately, the comedy just isn’t that good. There’s the occasional funny joke here and there, but more often than not, it goes for the easiest gag it can grab and then pummels it into the ground. For example, early in the movie, Ronnie, aroused by CJ, gets an erection. He tried to hide it by falling face down in a deck chair, and then his penis gets stuck in between the slats. Then Mitch comes over to try and help him out. Imagine a version of the classic scene in There’s Something about Mary where Ben Stiller gets his penis stuck in his zipper except it’s in no way funny, and you have idea of the level Baywatch is operating at.
And that’s a shame because buried beneath the haphazard tone and lazy jokes could have been a better movie. There’s a mentor-protégée storytline between Mitch and Brody, there’s a romance subplot between CJ and Ronnie, there’s another, weaker romance subplot between Brody and Summer, and Stephanie is left with pretty much nothing. If the story had focused solely on bringing up the entire team or had just been a buddy film between either Mitch and Brody or even Mitch and Ronnie, it could have been on to something, but the script’s lack of focus drains the energy from all the relationships to the point where the only character who has any semblance of an arc is Brody.
While no one in the movie gives a particularly bad performance, most of the cast is left with nothing to do. Efron gets to play the conceited, handsome dumb guy who learns a valuable lesson (done to better effect in the Neighbors movies) and Johnson gets to be charismatic and likable despite Mitch having zero backstory or even much of a character arc (he basically serves to be a leader without having any personal goals beyond “Stop the bad guy.”). The real standout is Chopra. I’ve never seen her TV series Quantico, but she owns the film every second she’s on screen. Victoria isn’t a particularly memorable villain on the page, but Chopra is commanding, and when she gets called an aspiring Bond villain, it made me want her to be the villain in the next Bond movie. If there’s one good thing that can come from the wreckage of this movie, it’s for Chopra’s career in Hollywood films to take off.
It’s unfortunate that Baywatch isn’t a stronger film because it has the cast and the premise to be an effective comedy, but sadly, no one behind the scenes seemed to have a good idea of what that comedy should be. Without a clear vision of what they were trying to accomplish, they rested on tired jokes and predictable situations. Instead of checking out Baywatch, just watch 21 Jump Street again. You’ll have a much better time.