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Big Screen Version of TV’s 'Baywatch' A Missed Opportunity

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Paramount
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Aside from its pretty faces, Baywatch lives its life from the neck to the mid-thigh. It’s not much interested in the rest of the body, and it’s especially not interested in what could possibly take place on the inside of the head. If you’re planning to see Baywatch, it might be good for yourself to shut down what Woody Allen has called his “second favorite organ.” That’s too bad. The original television show Baywatch, which had a stunningly long run from 1989 all the way to 2001, is ripe for a comic take on itself and its ancestry.

I am sorry to report however that the film does not have a sense of humor about itself. It tries, but neither the six writers, director Seth Gordon, the actors, nor the cinematographer Eric Steelberg have the foggiest idea of how to pull off a good penis or cleavage joke. The late film critic of The New York Times, Vincent Canby, once wrote of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger that while Schwarzenegger was very strong, he was not strong enough to lift his tongue into his cheek. The cast and crew of Baywatch fall well below that important measure of strength.

Like its television inspiration, the new Baywatch takes place among lifeguards on a Los Angeles beach. Problems arise with bad folks who leer like Snidely Whiplash. A bosomy villainess and land developer sporting a good pound of red lipstick, is trying to take over the beach by bribing apparently the entire city council. Even worse, an arrogant swimmer, Matt Brody (Zac Ephron) assumes that he will be chosen in the upcoming trials for new lifeguards. Brody won two individual gold medals in the last Olympics, but showed up hungover for the relay and blew the race for his teammates. Alert viewers might just figure out that one task for Matt is to show that finally he will deserve those medals and learn the crucial simpleminded lessons about teamwork that form the soul of this lifeguard crew.

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Credit Paramount
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And along the way to that lofty goal, Baywatch brings in the usual complements of a geeky guy who manages to be useful, a number of secondary lifeguards who look like the models in your favorite catalogues, and the required plot points in which hero Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) is disciplined for breaking the rules and sent to his room to look morose.

In spite of the empty headedness, Baywatch does have a strategy of sorts, which boils down to something like no situation will be without its cleavage or its tush. Chests and bottoms appear like remedies for the various evils the lifeguards face. A murdered young man washes up on the beach, and somehow a few shots of concerned lifeguards in their bathing suits make everything feel ok. If that doesn’t work for you, you’re likely not a 14-year-old boy, the essential part of the target audience.

At the center of Baywatch is the muscled actor/movie franchise Dwayne Johnson, who is terrific at looking serious, concerned and watchful. He leaps great obstacles when he dives to the rescue; he is impervious to fire. His eyes scan the beach; he brooks no monkey business; he tolerates no levity. He has but one expression, and onscreen at least, behind those eyes you suspect no other activity. But I wonder if all those ferociously developed muscles really do him any good when he has to spend an entire movie with his shirt off. He looks like he’s imprisoned in that body. It would take an immense effort to get that physical presence to express the wit that a picture like Baywatch needs. How do you make fun of something that’s already a cartoon?

Back when Vincent Canby said that Arnold Schwarzenegger could not lift his tongue into his cheek, he was wrong. The Arnold actually has a sense of humor. Dwayne Johnson may have screen presence, but playful wit is still beyond him.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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