Written by: Christopher Osterndorf
In a sea of summer box office disappointments (most of which, surprisingly enough, are sequels), Baywatch stands out as perhaps the only genuine bomb. With disastrous reviews and a $23 million opening weekend against a 70 million dollar budget, it would seem that the failure of Baywatch comes down to more than just franchise fatigue. But with its likable cast, built-in brand recognition and timely release, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this potential comedic blockbuster failed to connect with audiences.
If one thing is for sure though, it’s that many of the movie’s problems stem from its script. With the failures of recent reboots like Baywatch and CHIPS, now is a good time as ever to look at one eighties TV show which was successfully resurrected as a modern comedy: 21 Jump Street. From clever direction, to pitch-perfect casting, there are several reasons the Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum vehicle struck such a chord with audiences. Still, while its success may look like lightning in a bottle, the real strength lies in the screenplay itself.
A clear vision
In addition to the creators of the original series, the Baywatch movie sports no less than six writing credits (four for story, two for screenplay.) This is not necessarily strange for a big Hollywood tentpole, however, it does often signafy a lack of vision. That many writing credits is often a bad sign that the studio didn’t know what they wanted, and that the writers who did work on the film may have had different takes on the source material.
21 Jump Street, meanwhile, only had two writers who worked on the screenplay: Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall (Hill and Bacall collaborated on the story, while Bacall has the sole screenplay credit.) And although they brought on Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman for 22 Jump Street (again, bringing in new writers for a second installment is a fairly common move in Hollywood,) it was Hill and Bacall’s vision for what the characters, story, and humor should be that made both films work.
21 and 22 Jump Street earn their humor by setting up a world in which that humor makes sense. The raucous high-school/college parties the movies depict, along with the police work done by Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) make the film’s R-rated style of comedy a logical necessity.
Baywatch, on the other hand, takes the cheesy, titillating tone of the show into aggressively raunchy territory. This feels unearned, as if the movie is trying too hard to be edgy. CHIPS had similar issues. Although trying to improve character’s backstory is good, did anyone really want to see Ponch as a sex addict and Baker as a pill-popper? In the case of both films, the R-rating is at odds with the source material, and attempts to push the limits farther than they need to be pushed.
It helps when your movie is directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have a natural ease with editing and staging action. That said, in a good action-comedy, the action and comedy should work in tandem. The scripts for 21 and 22 Jump Street included multiple clever, action set pieces (for example, the car chase in the first film, or the helicopter ride at the end of the second,) designed not only to keep the audience on the hook, but which effectively use comedy to make the action better and vice versa.
Perhaps it was the direction or maybe it was the budget, but Baywatch never found an effective way to create original action set pieces. Moreover, the humor in these set pieces was not as strong as in the Jump Street series, or as in other successful action-comedies like The Other Guys or Pineapple Express. CHIPS, on the other hand, often exchanges humor for action entirely, altogether forgetting that it’s supposed to be a comedy at moments.
The Meta Problem
21 Jump Street makes a successful nod to the original show towards the end of the film, with a cameo that’s not only hilarious, but actually works fairly well within the plot. 22 Jump Street, meanwhile, barely references the series at all until the closing credits. But while both films contain silly homages to their source material, what makes the Jump Street franchise work is that it they’re able to make fun of the fact that they even exist, while also justifying their existence with a wholly original story that has nothing to do with the show they’re based on.
Baywatch and CHIPS aren’t quite up to this challenge. In the case of the latter, it’s a safe bet that most millennials probably don’t even remember what CHIPS was. However, the film tries so hard to push away from its campy source material, that at times it forgets to acknowledge how inherently ludicrous its premise is. Baywatch, meanwhile, can’t decide whether it wants to keep reminding viewers of the show it’s based on, or completely leave that show in its wake. Its crime procedural plot doesn’t quite work with the slow-motion sexiness it’s also trying to embrace.
Cops posing as high school students, lifeguards who protect their bay, and the saga of two California highway patrolmen; these are all inherently ridiculous premises. But only the Jump Street films have used that ridiculousness to their advantage. In fact, because the writers also created a compelling world and characters, the Jump Street films, which perhaps have the stupidest premise of all of these, are also the most grounded and easy to connect with too.
The Difference Between Spoofing, Reinventing, and Pivoting
Baywatch the movie, seems almost to exist for the purpose of poking fun at Baywatch the TV show. It’s spoofing of its source material is never really elevated into anything else, therefore it feels like half parody, half reboot, and never really turns into anything more.
CHIPS, to its credit, at least tries to reinvent the show it’s based on. But again, by straying too far from its source material, the script nearly loses its identity entirely. The end result is basically a motorcycle comedy which could have been called anything. Maybe that was the goal, but either way, the results were disappointing.
The Jump Street movies, however, while both spoofing and reinventing their source material, also do something much smarter. What makes these scripts work is the way they pivot the source material to be about something significant. In the hands of Hill and Bacall, these films became classic stories about what it’s like to be an outsider and how people reinvent themselves based on their surroundings. High school and college are dramatic times in most people’s lives, and the way the Jump Street films explore how Schmidt and Jenko fit in or fail to fit in in these settings is what gives the films an emotional core and elevates it beyond silly reboot.
We’ll see what happens when the Jump Street franchise gets merged with the Men in Black franchise, as the studio currently intends it too. As the montage at the end of 22 Jump Street makes clear, you can’t keep up quality forever. But in a world where everyone desperately strives to resurrect old IP with a fresh new twist, the first two Jump Street movies serve as reminders that a good story and engaging characters go a long way.