Based on its title alone, to say nothing of the wretched poster that Paramount created to market the picture, Lifeguard should be a sleazy sex comedy. Instead, it’s a fairly serious character piece about an iconoclastic man wrestling with other people’s perceptions of his prolonged-adolescent lifestyle. Sam Elliott, his signature sweet ’stache already firmly secured on his upper lip, plays Rick, an L.A. lifeguard in his 30s, making him a good ten years older than most of the other buff dudes running up and down Southern California’s beaches in little red shorts. Over the course of one summer, he trains a young apprentice (Parker Stevenson), dallies with a precocious teenager (Kathleen Quinlan), tries to rekindle an old spark with his high-school girlfriend (Anne Archer), and listens to family and friends who say it’s time to put away the SPF and get a real job. Coloring the storyline is the enduring allure of the mythic SoCal lifestyle as celebrated in the songs of the Beach Boys, among myriad other pop-culture artifacts, because virtually no mention is made of current events or even the turbulent goings-on of the late ’60s—which would have been the period of the protagonist’s early adulthood. Therefore, one gets a sense of a man who’s been hiding from the ugliness of the outside world by grooving on the beauty of the rays and the waves. In one telling scene, Rick explains that he likes winters even more than summers because during the cold months, he has the beach all to himself. So even though nothing about Lifeguard invites deep analysis, there’s something meaningful pulsing beneath the film’s bronzed skin.
Rest assured, however, there’s a touch of raunchiness here and there—think sexy flings at Rick’s bachelor pad, pervy teenage boys chasing busty women at the beach, a senior-citizen flasher, etc. Yet Ron Koslow’s competent screenplay mostly focuses on Rick’s sun-kissed ennui. For instance, the vignette of Rick getting his aging ass kicked by younger lifeguards in a running/swimming race is poignant, especially because that’s when his under-aged playmate (the Quinlan character) first realizes her lover isn’t the immortal hero she thought him to be. In fact, that whole relationship is handled intelligently and tenderly, with the filmmakers neither celebrating nor condemning Rick’s decision to sleep with a teenager. Similarly, the textures of the protagonist’s relationship with his old flame discourage simple reactions. To be clear, Lifeguard has a certain kitsch factor (two words: theme song), and Rick’s I-gottta-be-me attitude is so ’70s that it’s almost a cliché. Yet like its title character, the movie displays unexpected depth, an effect complemented by Elliott’s surprisingly nuanced performance. Koslow, by the way, later wrote the charmingly weird comedy Into the Night (1984) and created the supernatural TV series Beauty and the Beast and Moonlight.