Lifeguard February 17, 2021
ick Carlson (Sam Elliott), the inert hero of Daniel Petrie’s Lifeguard
(1976), has never given much thought to what he wants to “do” with his life. This good-looking 32-year-old has been working as a lifeguard at a Southern California beach for most of his adult life. He briefly went to college but dropped out. “I have a B.S. — bored shitless,” he says with a laugh early in the movie. All these years later, Rick hasn’t found a
conclusive reason to leave his low-stakes job; his colleagues are usually collegiates in town for the summer, unceremoniously out the watchtower door by August. Rick doesn’t have anything he’s especially passionate about; his interests amount to maintaining his marble-cut physique, nurturing his almond-brown tan, and driving around town in his pristine black convertible. He doesn’t really think about money: he doesn’t mind just getting by.
Rick is content. Most others are suspicious of his happy indifference. “When are you going to get a real job?” his father, with whom he otherwise has a good relationship, asks accusatorily over dinner one evening. “I know your secret,” a stewardess (Sharon Weber) Rick is sleeping with says humorlessly in bed one night. “You don’t care.” She says it almost worriedly — like Rick needs to be confronted with this observation. But we come to consider Rick’s nonchalance something of a strength. It’s not that Rick doesn’t care, exactly. It’s that he doesn’t feel the need to give in to what’s expected of a man his age.
Nonetheless, Rick spends much of Lifeguard, a languid and handsomely photographed character study, looking inward. Does he want something more after all? While attending his 15-year high-school reunion, he’s so embarrassed by the first few reactions when he tells his classmates about his job that he starts changing his story. Sometimes he says he works for the county. Because an old friend told him the other day that there was an opening at the car dealership he works for, other times he tells people he’s pivoting to sales. When you don’t want to say what you do for a living, are you as happy with your work as you think you are? Later, Rick reconnects with his high-school sweetheart, Cathy (Anne Archer), who has a young son, just got a divorce, and now runs an art gallery. Soon, Cathy, who notices that nothing has really changed since she and “Wild Man Rick Carlson” were together 15 years ago, is asking her old paramour to move in with her.
Will Rick forego his beloved job to become a husband who makes a living selling Porsches? “What’s next for you — are you going to move up, or out?” Cathy asks. These stakes sound a little low for a movie on paper. But Elliott’s performance is appealing enough to prop up the material (he lends a deeply felt melancholy to what is otherwise a rather vacuous character), and the script, by Ron Koslow, efficiently parrots everyday speak, to the effect of giving an ordinary identity crisis a heavier cinematic weight. The unflashiness makes the movie’s humdrum stakes have the same nervous energy they might in life. Moving from lifeguarding to car dealing superficially might not seem that big a step, but basally it amounts to transitioning from doing something you love to something you know you’re going to hate, mostly on account of appearance-keeping pressures. The long-term ramifications of premature soul-selling are pretty scary. When that car-dealer friend tells him he’s passing up a great opportunity if he doesn’t decide to take this job, Rick says, sensibly, “I might be passing up a lot more.”
Refreshingly, Lifeguard doesn’t see anything wrong with Rick continuing with what feels right, even if that rightness could be perceived by others as trivial. Part of his journey toward self-actualization involves him getting rid of the self-consciousness that inhibits him from openly admitting that he loves his unimpressive life the way it is. It isn't hard to empathize with him. The thought of taking a job more for its monetary prospects than how well it complements my interests has always frightened me; one spends so much of life working that the idea of wasting days on something entirely opposed to even a little fulfillment feels nightmarish. Maybe I, like Rick, will briefly reconsider this in my 30s. I found this no-frills film moving — a likable celebration of self-embracement. If not for a dated subplot that involves Rick’s friendship with a lonely 17-year-old beachgoer (Kathleen Quinlan, convincing in a complicated part) who develops a crush on him, I might even call it wise. B+