“Baywatch” is undeniably aware of itself as a cinematic punchline. But behind the penis jokes (there are many of them) and the film’s ironic approach with a self-aware male gaze (more on that later), there’s just a really weak narrative.
Not that anyone goes to see “Baywatch” for the story.
The film begins by establishing some extremely predictable tropes and tries to convince itself that, by the end, it will have turned those stereotypes on their head.
Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) is the manly-man patriarch of the Baywatch family — he’s invested in protecting the beach and the integrity of lifeguards’ role in it.
Previously an Olympic swimmer, Matt (Zac Efron) got drunk and cost his team their prestige before washing up on the Baywatch beach in order to become a lifeguard. Surprisingly, Matt is the most developed character in the film — now there’s a punchline — but only because he goes from entitled to “part of the family.”
The film’s real chance to construct a totally badass character was with Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) — a woman of color who is sadly left devoid of any character and merely a sidekick to Mitch. Toward the peak of the film’s “conflict,” Mitch is fired so that Matt — who just joined Baywatch — can become the lead lifeguard, despite protest from the lifeguards that Stephanie has years of experience and extensive knowledge of the beach and is clearly more qualified for the job.
The audience is meant to be upset for obvious reasons, but this is just one of many examples of the film’s deficient attempts to subvert stereotype. It’s hard to undermine the narrative that qualified women of color are overlooked for promotions when the film ends with a different replacement for lead lifeguard: a white woman.
Sure, that woman is Pamela Anderson, but Stephanie still knew the beach better than anyone. The faux-feminism in “Baywatch” needs a lesson in intersectionality — Anderson could’ve had a cameo without assuming a position of power over an established and qualified woman of color.
Meanwhile, Ronnie (Jon Bass) is positioned as a tech-nerd beach-goer who becomes an unlikely lifeguard trainee alongside Matt. He’s crushing on the blonde lifeguard, C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach). Their relationship is probably the closest the film gets to subversive: C.J. is definitely sexualized — queue slow-motion running scenes — but she owns her sexuality, and while Ronnie is frequently left out of several action scenes, his coding skills are instrumental in catching the criminal that the lifeguards are after.
Yep, that’s right. The narrative is about lifeguards chasing a criminal. Nope, this isn’t an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants,” but there is a cameo by David Hasselhoff.
More specifically, the criminal these lifeguards are after is Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), a wealthy landowner bringing drugs to the bay. She basically assumes the role of the angry feminist — though that word would never be used in a film like “Baywatch” — whose attempts to monopolize the beachfront properties is driven by her exclusion from the family business. Although she was clearly more business savvy, her brother was chosen to run the family company instead. She delivers a few lines that could be printed on a refrigerator magnet, such as, “If I were a man, you’d call me driven.”
“Baywatch” is obviously preoccupied with bodies, and overtly upholds rigidly gendered standards: huge muscles for men and tiny waists for women. Mitch can constantly make jokes that emasculate Matt, because Zac Efron’s body protects his masculinity from ever really being called into question.
Then there’s the male gaze — the camera that lingers longer than necessary on a woman’s body, or moves from her legs and up her hips to her chest and then her face. It’s par for the course in a film like “Baywatch,” so it’s not really surprising or disappointing. Instead, it’s irritating, because the film seems to think that overt objectification is somehow less problematic just because it’s not hidden within a story. Characters joke about the men staring at women’s breasts. Women’s bodies fill the frame, even when out of focus and in the background of other characters’ close-ups.
It’s not enough to make a joke out of the male gaze if the women in the film are void of any character at all. And, because the film’s jokes were so tired and its narrative is so vacuous, there isn’t much to say about it at all.
It could have been a great satirical comedy, a chance to truly modernize and subvert the problematic nature of the original series. Instead, “Baywatch” just left me feeling salty.