“Swimming with Men” is “The Full Monty” with fins — only there are no swim fins allowed in synchronised swimming.
It’s a twee, flippant English farce built around diminutive Brit comic Rob Brydon. Freed from being Steve Coogan’s “Trip” movie second banana status, he headlines this midlife crisis comedy in which he is mostly shirtless and often surrounded by A-list character actors from Brexitania.
And he and they and the film director Oliver Parker (the “St. Trinians” comedies, “Johnny English Reborn”) and Brit TV writer Aschlin Ditta build around them are all laugh out loud funny.
Brydon plays Eric Scott, senior accountant, with an office, at a downtown London accountancy. It’s as boring as it sounds.
His boss (Robert Daws) is the sort who sticks his nose in his door every AM. “How’re the numbers, Eric?”
“They fend off the chaos!”
Eric’s wife (Jane Horrocks of “Little Voice”) has just been electected to the borough council, which is quite a coup even if it means they drift further apart. His son is a smart aleck teen who’s forgotten the word “Dad.” People he meet ask “How long have you been an accountant?” and his answer seems all-too-accurate.
“Three hundred years.”
But every weeknight at 6, clock-watcher Eric escapes the grind to do laps in the solitude of an indoor public pool. It’s the perfect way to dodge phone calls and check out of life. It’s zen, man.
The kid may smart off “You stink of chlorine” when he gets home. He knows how to shut that up. “You stink of drugs.”
The wife may be spending too much time in conference with her council boss (rakish Nathaniel Parker, brother of director Oliver) and drinking Eric’s wine as she does it. The pool is his safe place.
Until that fateful day when he lets himself sink to the bottom and sees them. — seven mostly middle-aged men, sitting on the bottom, sweeping their hands upward to stay submerged.
It’s bizarre and unquestionably silly. On the surface, he overhears what they’re about — creating designs and shapes, in unison, in the water. Synchronized swimming is an Olympic sport — for women. These guys? They use it for bonding, support, to give themselves purpose and maybe an artistic outlet.
And they’re no good at it. They can’t figure out how to do rotations, shifting the shapes they create or simply spinning in sync.
“It’s a FITNESS issue!” “It’s a PRACTICE issue.”
Actually, Eric interjects, “It”s a NUMBERS issue. You don’t have a pivot point, an apex variable.”
Say what now?
“Symmetry,” the accountant tells them. “Maths.” Their odd number derails their rotations.
“What are you, a syncro swimmer on the spectrum?”
The swimmers eyeball him, see him later in the bar and sense the “Can we not do this now?” nature of his fights with his wife. When Eric reaches crisis, they reach out.
“We’ve all had our moments at the bottom of the pool.”
They ask him in, in the name of humanity, in pursuit of symmetry. They give him a nickname — Archie, shorthand for the most famous mathematician of them all.
Rule One of Swim Club? “No one talks about Swim Club. What goes in the pool, stays in the pool.” Rule two, “For one hour a week, we swim as a unit, for each other.”
And so on. Eric, his home life spinning off his apex variable, is swept up with a crew played by Jim Carter of “Downton Abbey,” Daniel Mays of “The Bank Job” and “Rogue One,” Adeel Akhtar of “Four Lions” and “The Big Sick,” Thomas Turgoose, Ronan Daly and Chris Jepson.
Rupert Graves is Luke, the organizer, a realtor who lives in a trailer and is sweet on the 30something pool manager (Charlotte Riley). Susan watches the CCTV monitors in the office and finds these “broken” men worth encouraging.
There was a famous “Saturday Night Live” sketch that pointed to how inherently funny the idea of men doing this could be. How do you top that? By having the lads “entertain” at a child’s birthday party, by convincing sweet, demure and supportive Susan, who knows a little about the sport, become their trainer.
“PAIN is WEAKNESS leaving the BODY!”
“Swimming” wears its “Full Monty” ambitions (it isn’t on that level, but its funny enough) on its trunks, with the flippant banter and blend of melancholy sentimentality and sight gag silliness. It even uses a Tom Jones anthem for its “big finish.” Yeah, there’s an “informal world championships” for men who do this. No, seriously.
Parker and Ditta blend the two tones the film reaches for in a couple of scenes that are pure comic magic. Eric sits on the bottom of the pool, contemplating never coming back up alive, when hands reach down to grab him, manoeuvre him, hold his ankles and move him into position. He’s “invited” in, saved and manhandled all in the same gesture.
This isn’t just “a club,” it’s “a protest…against what we’ve become.”
One’s widowed, several are divorced, one blew his big chance at a football career, one’s a gay dentist not totally out in his relationship, another’s a young felon, “Silent Bob” never talks, “The New Guy” never gives everyone his name. “Aging alcoholics” they joke, and they’re half serious.
Rude random bits blend with nurturing moments. Although the cinema has had more than its share of “male bonding/male support group” comedies, the film’s amusing body issues and raging against the dying of the light take it into “Calendar Girls” territory, which was the female “Full Monty.”
“We’re as strong as our weakest member, and that is strong enough.”
Brydon, shorn of the shtick that makes him a Brit chat show favorite (No impressions, no funny voices), makes an amusing Everyman in a Suit, paranoid about age, a drifting marriage and general dissatisfaction with “what we’ve become.” Carter lends the comedy gravitas (his function in “Brassed Off,” “Downtown Abbey” and most everything else he appears in), Graves and Riley give the tale sex appeal.
And the swimming in sync, whether done well or in that English “That’ll do, the important thing is trying” way, can be cute, comical or life affirming. Get past the obvious joke — guys wrestling with a girly sport — and “Swimming with Men” finds its sweet spot. Yes, there “will always be an England.” And it’ll always be just a tad twee.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Rob Brydon, Rupert Graves, Jim Carter, Jane Horrocks, Adeel Akhtar, Nathaniel Parker, Spike White, Robert Daws
Credits:Directed by Oliver Parker, script by Aschlin Ditta. An IFC/Sundance Selects release.
Running time: 1:37