Dwayne Johnson and Efron in Baywatch

Baywatch, now in its second week in theaters, is a pleasant time waster whose greatest failing may be that its indistinguishable from other recent American action comedies. Adapted from a dumb TV show, the film is clearly modeled after Miller and Lord’s 21 Jump Street and its sequel—it uses threadbare source material as a springboard for self-referential humor and lowbrow gags. Baywatch differs from these other, better movies, however, in that it contains a few moments of genuine pathos, a quality that’s been in low supply lately in mainstream comedies. These moments owe less to the formulaic script than they do to Zac Efron’s skillful performance. Efron brings a sense of conviction to his character that separates him from the rest of the cast (though the other players are all agreeable); at times he seems to be acting in a different movie than everyone else.

Efron plays Matt Brody, a gold-medal swimmer who ruined his career by showing up to an Olympic race drunk. At the beginning of the film, he’s homeless and broke. He joins the title team of California lifeguards because he was offered the job without having to try out (a local law enforcement official believes his presence will provide good PR for the team) and, presumably, because no one else wants him. Brody is cocky and overconfident, so enamored with his abilities that he feels he doesn’t need to collaborate with others. The filmmakers make it obvious from the opening scenes how Brody will evolve: resisting the watch’s teamwork efforts at first, he’ll learn to be part of a group and help them solve the central murder mystery. Yet Efron is so good at conveying the character’s self-regard that Baywatch generates a bit of suspense anyway. Brody interacts poorly with the other lifeguards (the dialogue between Efron and the other players is deliberately arrhythmic at first), resisting their efforts to integrate him into the group.

Around halfway into Baywatch, Brody speaks to the source of his pride and self-sabotaging behavior. This occurs during a mission when the team goes to a party thrown by a real estate entrepreneur whom Brody’s lieutenant (Dwayne Johnson) suspects of running a drug-smuggling operation. Brody gets drunk when he’s supposed to be keeping an eye on the entrepreneur, and opens up to a female coworker to whom he’s attracted. He speaks of growing up in foster homes and learning to rely solely on himself for moral support. In a lesser film, these lines would be tossed off as dull backstory, but Efron supplies them with recognizable feeling, conveying the vulnerability beneath Brody’s macho exterior. For a few minutes, Baywatch drops its glib tone and invests in actual character development. The movie doesn’t sustain this level of characterization, but it’s nice while it lasts.

The scene showcases Efron’s underrated talent as an actor, which stems from his ability to convey earnestness and self-awareness. Efron has demonstrated this talent in both drama (Me and Orson Welles, The Paperboy, We Are Your Friends) and comedy (Hairspray, Neighbors, Dirty Grandpa), subtly adapting his skills to meet the demands of either genre. John Travolta’s early work is a good point of comparison. Like Travolta, Efron seems to recognize the strengths and limitations of his boyish appeal, knowing when to play it up and when to restrain it in the service of a story. This self-awareness is especially welcome when Efron appears in lowbrow comedies. Whereas so many American films in this genre strain under the effort to make every player seem funny in every scene, Efron’s comedy vehicles often find the star holding back so that other actors can take the spotlight. As a result, these movies don’t feel monotonous where their counterparts do. Efron may sometimes come across as bland, but it’s a small price to pay for not having to hear an uninspired one-liner every three seconds.

Baywatch tends to falter whenever Efron stops playing the straight man and tries to match Johnson and the other, funnier costars in wackiness. His one-liners feel crammed in, and they work against his earnest appeal. Yet one can’t blame Efron for the film’s occasional desperateness—in fact Baywatch exhibits a certain charm when he brushes himself off after one of his jokes falls flat. Not every lowbrow comedy can be Dirty Grandpa, which offset its crudeness with consistent sympathy for its characters. Yet Efron seems to have learned the lesson of that movie, bringing whatever sympathy he can to an underwritten part.