Liz W. Garcia's seriocomedy The Lifeguard stars Kristen Bell as Leigh, a 29-year-old Associated Press writer based in Manhattan. In the wake of a story on animal abuse, she suddenly decides to pick up and move back in with her parents, Justine and Hans (Amy Madigan and Adam Le Fevre). In the days that follow, she neglects her editorial post to the point of termination and sinks into a lengthy period of dope- and booze-addled lethargy, then resumes her $9-per-hour high-school job as a lifeguard at the nearby pool and reconnects with several pals from adolescence. These include Mel (Mamie Gummer), now the principal of the local high school, and Todd (Martin Starr), a hometown man widely acknowledged as gay but still in the closet. In time, Leigh also becomes sexually involved with a 17-year-old boy -- which threatens to erupt into disaster should everyone find out.
This movie fails on several levels. One of its most fundamental errors involves its setup: By abandoning an AP job without any clear-cut rationale and drifting into the empty, aimless life of a stoner, Leigh seems not simply lost to herself, but idiotic to us, especially given the recession-stricken economic climate in which this movie is set. She comes across as a complete twit and loses our sympathy from the word go, and we struggle to understand why this is happening and what she's aiming for -- neither of which Garcia articulates satisfactorily. As a result, scenes go on and on without any apparent form, shape, or destination.
The film also falls apart on the level of execution: In addition to a wooden performance by Bell, it suffers from ham-handed, clunky dialogue. Whenever Garcia wants to go for a really big laugh, she resorts to having the characters come up with the most vulgar statements she can think of, such as having a child at the pool verbally assault Leigh by demanding that she fellate him, and giving Leigh a colorful comeback: "I'm the ----ing lifeguard, mother----er!." These types of potshots feel desperate and not the slightest bit funny, but simply lazy and even inexcusable when put into the mouth of a child actor. Nor does Leigh's relationship with her young lover work at all: We have no idea what she learns from it, nor what he learns; it seems to exist merely because it provides an excuse to insert some steamy sex scenes between the two. Taken on their own, they are erotic enough (and Bell is attractive enough) to retain interest, but they add little to the film dramatically beyond pure sensationalism.
Compensating for the movie's gaffes, to a considerable degree, is a magnificent supporting performance by Gummer. As a young housewife crumbling inside over her inability to conceive a child with her husband, she creates a character so idiosyncratic, emotionally persuasive, and lived-in that you wish Garcia had devoted the entire story to her. She's a bright spot in an otherwise dreary morass.
To some degree, The Lifeguard is a victim of timing: Less than a year earlier, the Melanie Lynskey vehicle Hello I Must Be Going hit theaters, and it had a similar premise. It wasn't a perfect film, but it benefitted from a far more beautifully and meticulously realized central arc, as well as a more solid tone thanks to its more sympathetic lead character. A comparison between the two pictures provides a gentle reminder that a movie's success depends entirely on the skill of its execution and not on its concept.
cast-crew for The Lifeguard on AllMovie
The Lifeguard (2013)