Swimming With Men is just the kind of film I ache to like. An ensemble comedy, dealing with human issues in a Trojan horse of laughs, this one is led by the always-excellent Rob Brydon. Furthermore, there’s a yes-I’ll-see-that ensemble cast, including Jim Carter, Jane Horrocks, Thomas Turgoose and Adeel Akhtar. What could go wrong with that?
Sadly, in this case, a few things.
It starts promisingly, though. We meet Brydon’s Eric as he’s hitting the buffers. An accountant who takes little joy moving numbers around a screen, his marriage to Horrocks’ Heather is in trouble. His job is numbing. His only occasional escape is when he nips off to the local pool for a swim.
But on one particular visit, he stumbles on something a little different. Something a little different inspired by a true story. For there, practicing in the same pool, is a men’s synchronised swimming team. Eric being a logical chap, he gives them a tip or two on how to better structure themselves, and gradually finds himself drawn into their world. An unlikely bunch of synchronised swimmers thus comes together.
So far so good, then. By this stage, Brydon has precisely delivered some good one liners, the chuckle count is up, and the platform is in place for an underdog sporting movie, with real pathos to it.
But then it starts to stumble. It’s hard not to quickly feel, for instance, that the brilliant Jane Horrocks hasn’t drawn the short straw with her character for instance, playing a wife who has every right to be upset with her husband, but who’s written as someone far too two dimensional. It’s credit to Horrocks she gets what she can out of the role, but it is a thankless one.
Surprisingly, too, the film stumbles when it follows the aforementioned underdog template. Ever since Rocky took on Apollo Creed for the first time, the parameters have been strongly established, and proven highly effective. You have your group of misfits banding together against all odds, building up to some form of euphoric finale, whether they win or not. But when Swimming With Men enters its final act, you can’t help but feel that they’ve run out of money. The synchronised swimming world championships that the team enter seem very much on the low key side, and there’s never a sense that a tricky obstacle has been put in the team’s way. Furthermore, the film falls far short of delivering the kind of punch the air moments in its finale that it’s trying to inspire. Instead, the final third fizzles out, rather than soars. It’s not helped that a tacked on further coda dilutes the impact of the story still further, feeling more silly than inspiring or heartwarming. I was never left with a sense that anyone had done anything particularly special, and for me, that fatally undermined the impact of the film.
What brings things back to the surface a little is that ensemble, who are genuinely fun to spend time with. Jim Carter and Adeel Akhtar are very good in particular, and there’s work done to show how each of the swimmers needs the team in their lives. Charlotte Riley, too, delivers good work, and the characters themselves are – for the most part – enough to get you interested. Brydon in particular is terrific.
But I can’t shake the feeling that Swimming With Men is an opportunity lost. Look at how The Full Monty explored the impact of unemployment and male suicide in the midst of a very funny comedy. Or how Brassed Off generated huge laughs, but also told the tale of pit closures, and how they shattered communities. Swimming With Men has similar ingredients, but they never mix anymore near as satisfyingly. And that’s no pleasure at all to write.
Swimming With Men is in UK cinemas from Friday.