The Nineties TV series Baywatch, about the lives, loves and bikini lines of a team of crime-solving Californian lifeguards, provoked pressing questions each week. Would the women’s swimsuits expose a generous handful of buttock on each side? Would their breasts bounce sufficiently in the slow-motion running shots on the beach? Only a twisted sort of talent, then, could make the big-screen version not only stupider than the original but cynical in entirely new ways. Step forward, Seth Gordon and his team, who have achieved the impossible. They’ve dumbed down Baywatch.
Though the actors appear to realise they’re in a comedy, they have not the slightest inkling about how to make it funny. As the head lifeguard Mitch Buchannon, Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) approaches jokes in the same fashion as he used to treat opponents during his years as a professional wrestler: he body-slams them. Mitch’s attempts at humour involve impugning the masculinity of the trainee lifeguard Matt Brody (Zac Efron). He refers to Matt variously as “One Direction”, “Malibu Ken” and, in a fourth-wall-breaking nod to Efron’s own back catalogue, “High School Musical”. What a wag.
The threat in Baywatch arises not from the drug smuggler Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), who bumps off her enemies without smudging her lipstick, but from homosexuality, expressed here as a terror of femininity. Mitch is disgusted when Matt goes undercover as a woman (“Why you wearing make-up, dude?”), though viewers may wonder instead why this cross-dressing doesn’t have any comic function. Mitch also alludes to Matt’s “mangina” and “little mermaid ass”, calling him “princess” and “baby girl”. Matt in turn is horrified when Mitch administers a full-on kiss to save him from drowning. Male bodily contact here is a fate worse than death.
Only at the end of Baywatch does Mitch use Matt’s real name – and then only because the younger man has just punched their superior square in the face. Violence is shown to be synonymous with respect and masculinity, which is quite the retrograde lesson to stick in a picture that aspires to light-heartedness.
Many comedies have had at least one off-colour gag attain classic status without actually being funny – the flatulent cowboys in Blazing Saddles, the semen-as-hair-gel in There’s Something About Mary. So perhaps there is hope for the scene here in which Mitch and Matt visit a morgue, the one location that exhibits even fewer signs of intelligent life than this movie. Once there, Mitch tricks Matt into holding a dead man’s penis.
This scene has everything: fear of intimacy and mortality and, most of all, another man’s junk. What it doesn’t have is laughs or logic. Mitch secretly takes some snaps of the incident, which are never mentioned again. Not for the first time, the screenwriters, Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (who have no previous comedy credits), simply neglect to finish the scene.
Old television shows used to shuffle off to the graveyard of syndication and pub quiz trivia. That was until postmodernism, the knight in shining irony. With a knowing makeover, even the cheesiest series could be reborn as a self-mocking film. The Brady Bunch Movie and the exuberant Jump Street comedies have been high points of the form, but Baywatch is surely the first movie to screw up comprehensively this crap-TV-to-cool-film formula. The main requirement is to play naffness sincerely, knowing that humour will follow. The disparity between the values of the era in which the show was made and the ones we now hold dear should bring its own element of comic culture-clash.
That’s the theory. But the jokes in Baywatch show every sign of having been dug up on the beach where they were buried after the Eighties reign of the risqué sex comedy (Porky’s, Screwballs, Hot Bubblegum). No modern, enlightened hands have been allowed anywhere near this project; the creators didn’t even have the sense to rename it Baewatch. It may be 2017 but the thong remains the same.
This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning