There are two films at work in Baywatch, the feature-length adaptation of the 1980s soggy soap opera. There’s the story of Brody (Zac Effron), a disgraced former Olympic swimmer who wants to join the Baywatch team, and Mitch (Dwight “The Rock” Johnson), the leader of the team, who dismisses Brody as nothing more than a pretty-boy with a sense of entitlement. And then there’s a rather oddly-conceived story about Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), a corrupt businesswoman who wants to buy up the waterfront property around Emerald Bay as a front for her drug-importing racket.
When Baywatch remembers that it’s actually Baywatch, it’s an enjoyable piece of fluff. It’s a very knowing, very self-referential take on a television programme that everyone knows, everyone remembers, but nobody (at least nobody I’ve spoken to) is willing to admit to having seen a single episode of. Effron is less annoying than he might be; Johnson is a sufficiently amiable screen presence that it’s hard to take against anything that he does. The two work decently together, and the rest of the cast, in particular Kelly Rohrbach as the obligatorily perkily-breasted CJ and Jon Bass as Ronnie, the schlubby but determined underdog who’s utterly smitten with her, come together to make a film that has an entirely acceptable amount of humour with a decent smattering of nob gags.
Had Baywatch stuck to being Baywatch, it would have been a perfectly OK, pleasantly agreeable diversion. But someone — it’s unclear who; perhaps it was director Seth Gordon, perhaps it was one of the half-dozen credited writers — decided that it needed a Proper Story, that the character-driven comedy wasn’t enough. And so we have a frankly absurd story about the Baywatch team going undercover — despite numerous characters mentioning, on numerous occasions, that this isn’t what Baywatch should be doing — to try to bust a drugs ring. And when it’s being that film, Baywatch struggles much, much more.
It’s a shame, really. Baywatch is not at all a bad film; it’s certainly not the mess I had imagined it would be. The humour lacks subtlety for much of the nearly-two-hour running time, but it has a number of properly funny call-backs to the original programme, from references to the sillier moments belonging in “an entertaining but far-fetched TV show” to predictable, but somewhat necessary, cameos. When it’s good, it’s really not bad at all. When it’s bad, it’s just dull.