Swimming with Men

This British synchronised swimming comedy paddles blandly through formulaic waters.
Sarah Ward
March 21, 2019


Inspire packed halls to erupt with laughter, travel around picturesque locales while eating meals with Steve Coogan, and imitate everyone from Tom Jones to Michael Caine. Yes, there's much that Rob Brydon can do. He can also hold his own on every British panel show ever made, play a traffic warden in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and make his voice sound like it's echoing from a box. But not even this multi-talented Welsh comedian can keep Swimming with Men afloat. Brydon's latest big-screen outing wants to bob along the surface of the offbeat sports comedy pool. It wants to paddle around casually, making viewers happy without making too big a splash. Alas, this by-the-numbers comedy sinks quickly, as you might expect given its premise: The Full Monty, just with synchronised swimming.

The mix of curiosity, amusement and puzzlement that synchronised swimming sometimes sparks ("really, this is actually a sport?") is Eric Scott's (Brydon) starting position. To be fair, he's similarly bewildered by much of his routine life. The closer that his local councillor wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) seems to get to her colleague Lewis (Nathaniel Parker), the more blustered Eric becomes, and the more his son Billy (Spike White) revels in the uncomfortable situation. Gin doesn't cure his despair, however a dip in the local pool just might. In the beginning, Eric only notices the amateur synchronised swimming squad because they have the wrong number of members, and naturally he's an accountant. And yet it's not all that long until he's joining their ranks.

The difference between formulaic comedy done well and formulaic comedy done badly is often a matter of mood and energy. With Swimming with Men reaching cinema screens at the same time as the also straightforward Fighting with My Family, that couldn't be more evident. The pair have their commonalities and their contrasts. Both are based on documentaries — 2010's Men Who Swim, about an all-male Swedish team, in this case — and both tell standard underdog tales. Each focuses on a vastly dissimilar sport, and has its own target market in mind. But the flat, dull feeling that Swimming with Men evokes is all a matter of tone and spirit; specifically, it doesn't have much of either.

Instead, the film presents a forced feel-good vibe, a strong desire to swim in Calendar Girls and Brassed Off's slipstream, and very little to make it stand out. Skimming along the surface of its male malaise theme, it also boasts a rote group of hardly fit and heavily discontent blokes surrounding Brydon: Rupert Graves plays the slick one, Adeel Akhtar is the cynic, Jim Carter is sensitive, Daniel Mays is both hot-headed and stressed, and Thomas Turgoose is the token troubled youth. No one is at their best, and while treading water is an essential part of donning speedos and doing eggbeater kicks, the cast does so both literally and figuratively. Screenwriter Aschlin Ditta doesn't give anyone much choice, saddling them with easy, lazy humour and zero trace of character development.

Also wading half-heartedly is director Oliver Parker. Trading the teen-centric St. Trinian's flicks for the silliness of Johnny English Reborn, and then for the middle-aged antics of Dad's Army and Swimming with Men, he's happy to take the dullest, most obvious route through the movie. It's the filmmaking equivalent of slowly paddling laps rather than busting out any acrobatic moves — and while you can swim freestyle leisurely with a smile, it's always going to remain the same old stroke. When the film reaches its big climax, a synchronised swimming contest, it almost seems like Parker realises how little excitement he has put on the screen. Rather than relishing the performance, appreciating this odd bunch of unlikely men banding together and doing their best, or eagerly celebrating their achievement, he keeps jumping to shots of the watching crowd. They might be enthused, but after such a bland affair, it's difficult to share their sentiments.


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