Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sitting on the Dock of the Baywatch, Watching a Film Float Away

As I was watching the 2017 cinematic reimagining of the staple '90s TV show Baywatch, one question kept popping into my head: Who was this made for? It wasn't a rhetorical question either. I genuinely couldn't fathom who the intended audience of this movie was. I wasn't a huge fan of the original Baywatch TV show, though I was familiar with it insofar as many young men of my generation were familiar with it as ready source of scantily clad women running in slow motion directly off the screen and into the hearts and spank banks of millions. I don't know if you could have beeen a heterosexual boy or teen in the '90s and not have Pamela Anderson be a part of your sexual awakening.

The point in danger of getting lost is that I am by no means an expert on the plot lines, characters, or themes of individual episodes. All I am left with is an overall impression of the show in general and a grudging respect for David Hasselhoff's impressive chest hair. And despite the fact that the original Baywatch TV show seemed like an excuse to show off some fit dudes and chicks in their bathing suits wrapped up in melodrama, it all seemed to be earnest in its intent. There was no satire or winking at the audience; there was no need for any of that. There was no deeper or secret meaning or commentary or metanarrative. Everything that Baywatch wanted to say was out there, barely contained and bouncing around in a bright red bathing suit.

The movie adaptation of Baywatch is not a drama like its television progenitor, but an action comedy that simultaneously seeks to pay homage to and satirize the original. This wouldn't have been so bad if it had remotely succeeded at either of these things. As it stands, Baywatch is kind of a tonal mess, never really capturing the spirit or feeling of the original and never really certain of what it wanted to address with its metacommentary. There were over-the-top action scenes that were jarringly juxtaposed with scenes of raunchy comedy and failed attempts at earnest character development that felt unearned and lacked any real depth.

For the record, I definitely find enjoyment in "mindless," over-the-top action. I am an unabashed fan of The Fast and The Furious franchise, which has progressively gotten faster and furiouser over the years, and even more ridiculous (and of which, like Baywatch, Dwayne Johnson is also both a literal and figurative huge part). I am also a fan of raunchy comedies, for which I will submit as evidence my love of Kevin Smith's pre-horror pantheon, AKA the View Askewniverse. Basically all this is to say, I'm no square, man. I'm hip to the jive of today's youth. My finger is, indeed, on the pulse, and definitely nowhere near my ass.

The real failure of Baywatch is really twofold. It fails first in the sense that it has no idea what it wants to be, genre-wise, and ends up pulling itself in multiple directions, to ultimately end up never committing to a unified direction in terms of style, tone, and theme. Second, largely because of this first failing, the film makers are unable to offer any pay-offs in terms of narrative, character, or humour, because nothing is earned; lurking behind every aspect of the film is the sense that the audience will connect with the movie because we're supposed to. Baywatch has no idea what it wants to be, and this lack of confidence in its own identity precludes the possibility of any true engagement with the audience.

The whole movie is kind of strange. It follows Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson), the senior-most lifeguard who manages his team of elite lifeguards - Baywatch - as they protect the occupants of their beach from drowning and venomous sea creatures as well as murder, theft, arson, and drug dealers for some reason. Disgraced (two-time) Olympic gold medalist Matt Brody (Zac Efron) is forced onto Mitch's team by some higher-ups, causing friction and (a-hem) drama. Mitch and his team take it upon themselves to investigate local businesswoman Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) and her needlessly convoluted scheme involving running a drug cartel and driving down real estate prices so she can buy up the properties in the area (She must be a huge fan of Police Academy 6?) for her own nefarious purposes. Building a new club or resort or something, maybe? It doesn't really matter.

Well... There go the last lingering threads of my heterosexuality.
First of all, the entire plot is so ridiculous that Zac Efron's character points out how ridiculous it is numerous times throughout the movie. This team of lifeguards - you know, that job that we are typically comfortable with as a society entrusting to teenagers - is constantly overstepping legal, ethical, and logical boundaries as they investigate murders, drug cartels, and giant boat explosions. Mitch gives some cockamamie excuse like it's their beach and the cops don't know what's really going on, man, and don't see all the pieces of the puzzle like the lifeguards do, what with them being on the front lines of... keeping yuppie tourists from drifting out to sea. Brody, who is supposed to be a huge douchebag, lone-wolf type and portrayed as not overly bright, keeps pointing out to Mitch that this is actually a job for the police, and that their team of lifeguards has, you know, precisely zero authority, training, or resources to pursue any type of investigation outside of who was littering on the beach.

Brody is specifically shown to be, at best, a solid C student. He's a swimmer, not a thinker. He's also portrayed, at the beginning of the film, as a narcissistic asshole, in contrast to the virtuous and astute Mitch. This makes it all the more frustrating that the stupidest character is saying the smartest thing, and getting dismissed outright by other characters. Maybe it would have been different if this was done in a way that was winking at the audience. But the way it comes off in the film is totally lacking in self-awareness. Director Seth Gordon is either unaware or simply doesn't care that the character that we are least supposed to empathize with blatantly invalidates the movie's entire premise in a single sentence.

The thing is, this could have been funny, if the film was a) aware of the joke and b) willing to let the audience in on that joke. But Baywatch inexplicably seems to be actively keeping the audience at arm's length at all times. We are invited to observe the proceedings on screen, but we are never allowed to be a part of the inner circle.

There are several action scenes, but they're completely forgettable. This is not because they are poorly staged or shot; indeed, there are a lot of standard blockbuster action beats that should be engaging even if there was nothing groundbreaking. But again, the movie is unsure of how to frame the action. It's played straight, where all of the sudden there are supposedly dramatic stakes, exactly none of which are earned. This is in stark contrast to scenes immediately preceding and following the action, that are meant to be humourous, but only serve to undercut the dramatic tension they were trying to achieve in the action scenes.

An early sequence involving a daring rescue on a flaming boat is the perfect example of this. The first half hour of the movie establishes Mitch as equal parts Superman, Sherlock Holmes, and Tom Hanks; he is physically impeccable, knows more than everybody else in the room, and is universally loved and respected by everybody around him. So as Mitch dives under a swath of burning fuel to get to the burning boat to rescue that boat's occupants, there is never any tension at all. We know that Mitch is the best and strongest at everything, and that one of his defining character traits is that he never fails (even when being temporarily relieved of duty later in the film, he is proven right, and shows up out of nowhere at exactly the right time to save the day). We know he's going to make it through the flames. We know he's going to get to the boat. We know that he's going to rescue three people singlehandedly with little effort. There is nothing at stake.

Compare this with The Fast and the Furious franchise, which is loaded to the tits with ridiculous action. The main characters do things with cars that defy all laws of both man and god. But it's always so goddamn fun to watch, because those movies know exactly what they are and what they are trying to achieve. They're not pretending to be Citizen Kane. They are fun, blockbuster romps, and the film makers are aware of this. Because of this self-awareness, those involved in The Fast and the Furious movies are also able to build in an emotional and narrative investment in the action sequences that are appropriate to the context. Whether it's revenge or talking down one last score (again), there is a subtext to everything happening on the screen. There are reasons why Dom Toretto and his crew (sorry, family) do the things they do, even those reasons are sometimes just to do ridiculous things with cars. In The Fast and the Furious franchise, everything is contextualized; expectations are set and then met.

"Yeah, sorry, I'm just going to have to take a look at
your 'resume' again." -
Baywatch Casting Director
This is not the case with Baywatch. The minds at work behind this film seem to adhere to the Pavlovian school of film making. They commit specific imagery to the screen that they see has evoked a desired emotional response in audiences of other films expecting that this simple, superficial association alone will cause a similar response again. Dicks are funny, right? The people behind Baywatch sure calculated that to be the case. There are not one but two extended scenes involving dicks. They are both supposed to be funny. They are both decidedly not so.

The first involves a dude getting his cock and balls stuck between the wooden slats of a beach chair. One by one, lifeguards are brought in to help, including one the dude has a crush on, so of course his massive boner also contributes to not being able to free himself. Public embarrassment is also funny, right? Well, soon word spreads, and this guy with his dick stuck in a chair has amassed an entire crowd of people taking pictures and everything. The second involves Mitch convincing Brody to check a dead man's taint for evidence of drug use as a ruse to take an incriminating picture of Brody fondling a corpse's dick. Brody is upset about this, because homophobia is still funny, right?

The thing is, these two events are never set up or alluded to ever again in the film. It's like a couple of unfunny Saturday Night Live sketches (And really, are there any other kind these days?) accidentally got copy and pasted into the middle of this summer blockbuster script, and nobody bothered to read the thing to check before shooting started.

Or, more likely, it wasn't a mistake at all.

This seems to be exactly the thing that a bunch of people sitting around a boardroom table might concoct. Not so much a movie, but a cinematic calculation designed to make money and voted on by men in suits who have never been near a movie set or even seen a movie. It's almost like, somebody explained what a movie was like to a room full of businessmen who had never actually seen one, and they decided to try their hand at these "so-called motion pictures" as a business venture. Baywatch feels like a movie that was birthed from a pool of pure capitalism while a cabal of three-piece-suit-wearing acolytes stood around in a circle in the birthing chamber, chanting unholy rites to call upon dark blessings from the Dark Lord Capitalism.

Again, I'm not criticizing the raunchy humour in Baywatch because I find no joy in supposed "low-brow" comedy. Kevin Smith built his entire fortune on humour that by any measure would be considered to be among the vulgar variety. One of the perfect examples is in Clerks II, where the climax (heh) of the film is a full on donkey show featuring bestiality (sorry, inter species erotica) between a man and his donkey while another character masturbates furiously in the corner to the whole scene while apologizing to Jesus. There is also, as strange as it might sound, pathos built into this whole scene. The subtext is that one character is trying to express to his friend his profound sadness that this friend is moving away for a new job and  new life without any sort of reflection on why or how it might affect others in his life. The donkey show is also built up throughout the entire course of the movie, so that it doesn't just come up out of the blue. Expectations are set and then met (and cleverly subverted in this case with some nomenclature confusion regarding Kinky Kelly and the Sexy Stud). What's more, the donkey show is a catalyst for an incredibly touching scene in which these heterosexual men express their love for each other (in a totally non-gay way), a very rare and poignant portrayal of heterosexual men expressing themselves emotionally.

This is all part of the underlying reason The Fast and The Furious franchise and Kevin Smith's movies succeed where Baywatch fails so completely which is that it lacks heart (and also a great, big, bushy beard!). What I mean by that is that it is bereft of any sense of earnestness or confidence in the emotional context or direction in which it wishes to situate or drive its characters, narrative, or theme. To put it simply, Baywatch doesn't seem to care about any of the characters or plot points that it contains beyond the pragmatic sense of putting out an end product. It also doesn't seem to care about any connective tissue between scenes or the dialogue and action portrayed in those scenes and that portrayed in other scenes. It doesn't seem to care about anything except regurgitation of modern cinematic tropes with no thought behind why they're being used and what they mean and how they work together.

And when I say the movie doesn't care, what I really mean is that the film makers don't care.

To be clear, the actors in Baywatch are not the problem. I don't even know if director Seth Gordon is the problem. I mean, he directed shit like Pixels, but he also directed the amazing King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I think, by and large, Baywatch is the perfect example of a studio film, and I mean that in the worst way possible. It was a movie that was produced more than it was directed. It shows a complete lack of understanding and fundamental respect for its audience and no clear goals except making money.

I don't begrudge large Hollywood blockbusters for wanting to make money. The Marvel Cinematic Universe basically has a licence to print money at this point. But after watching a film following the adventures of one or more of the Avengers, I don't feel the same hollowness that lies at the core of Baywatch. Marvel films are blockbusters to the core, but each movie (with a few exceptions) knows exactly what it wants to be, and delivers to those expectations. Marvel movies are, in fact, becoming hyper aware of genre. Ant-Man is clearly playing on the standard heist film tropes. Captain America: Winter Soldier drew clear and explicit inspiration from paranoid spy thrillers from the '70s. Genre expectations are pretty clearly telegraphed in Marvel films, and I feel that even though some of them rely on a lot of mindless action, I don't feel duped, and I still feel like there was a payoff. I got something in return for two hours of my time and varying amounts of money depending on the day of the week and the amount of snacks purchased at the concession stand.

Baywatch lacked any heart, a great deal of coherence, and no clear sense of tone. It was, ironically, even less self-aware than the cheesy '90s melodrama on which it was based. If it was trying to offer some commentary on the original TV series other than "Remember all the running in slow motion?" it failed. Completely. If I had to sum up Baywatch, I would have borrow a turn of phrase and say that it was a stupid man's idea of a smart movie, an unfunny man's idea of a comedic movie, and a unimaginative person's idea of a creative film.


There's not much more I can say about Baywatch. I love watching Dwayne Johnson work, but I honestly felt bad for him in this film (and his silly defence of the film with the old fallback of it not being made for critics, the cliched response to somebody not liking your artistic endeavour). Baywatch is a 2/10 = One Head Vomiting Into the Pool of Mediocrity and Dashed Expectations


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