In his native Britain, Welsh actor Rob Brydon is a household name. The actor, comedian, impersonator, and BBC TV game show host is probably best known stateside as the other guy co-starring with Steve Coogan in The Trip to Italy and The Trip to Spain. In the new genteel comedy from England, Swimming with Men, he’s the lead.
Bryson plays Eric Scott, an accountant, a numbers guy with a mid-life crisis. Like thousands of others who every morning face the daily grind of a wearying commute into the city, Scott sits at his desk surrounded by percentages, interest rates, and ledgers until the clock tower seen through his office window strikes six. He then sighs, shuts down his computer and leaves, ready to face that commute back to his life in the suburbs once again. Sometimes, before going home, he’ll stop off at the local swim baths for a few quick laps to help him wash away the tedium of the day.
Occasionally he’ll notice a small group of other men practicing synchronize swimming, but they’re getting it wrong. Being a wiz with formulas and math equations he offers them a quick piece of advice. The team’s membership consists of an uneven number. It needs to be even. “If you want the move to work,” he states as he brushes past them, “You have to lose a man.”
But instead of dropping a member, the motley crew of swimmers have a meeting and decide to offer Scott a place on the team. That should make the numbers even. Plus, from their point-of-view, it’s clear Scott needs help. Sensing that things may not be going well on the home front for the lap swimming accountant, the would-be synchronizers approach Scott and make the offer. “We don’t let just any dickhead join,” declares team member Colin (Daniel Mays).
With a job he hates and a marriage that may be falling apart, the numbers guy feels a sudden kinship with the swimmers – each appear to have some unsettling home front business of their own – so he accepts the invitation to do some whirling and twirling and a few scissor-kicks and joins the men, just for the fun of it. Plus, with an invitation to be a part of the synchronized swimming world championship for men in Milan, Italy, the team with its new member starts taking their after-hours training seriously.
For anglophiles who regularly watch PBS or subscribe to the streaming service Brit Box, there are plenty of recognizable faces in the cast. Jane Horrocks, best remembered as the ditzy secretary Bubble on TV’s Absolutely Fabulous, plays Scott’s wife Heather, a newly elected councilwoman making headlines by fighting imposed cuts to a library. “See the missus is causing trouble,” says an office colleague to Scott, pointing at the local newspaper. Plus, there’s a funny turn from Charlotte Riley as Susan, an employee at the swimming pool who joins the men as the team’s coach, even if she considers them to be “The most broken, flawed bunch of twats I’ve ever met.” Susan’s a likable mousy type until her inner Mr. Hyde emerges. “You bastards!” she suddenly yells as a form of motivation. When a team member tells her his thighs are hurting from all the exercise, she growls in his ear, “Enjoy the burn!”
There’s a formula to the film that can’t help but echo the rhythms of The Full Monty and others of its ilk. An unlikely bunch of men group together, form a team, enter a contest, train hard, and against all odds, take on other country heavyweights in the hope of winning a world championship. Here when the team takes its swim training to another level, they’re accompanied by a rock version of Rule Britannia. At the airport, they walk as one in slo-mo towards the gate, and when it comes to the championship contest itself, they enter the pool to the strains of a rock instrumental that sounds not altogether dissimilar to Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, followed by Tom Jones and This Is a Man’s World.
Had the film’s subplot regarding Scott’s suspicions about his wife, her council member career, and the possibility that she might be having an affair with her boss felt developed, his jealousy and the way he acts towards her could have seemed more reasonable than they appear here. It’s hard to sympathize with a man who behaves as rash as Scott does, making him and his actions less likable than the film wants him to be.
Surprisingly, the film is inspired by a true event. In 2003 the Swedish Stockholm Art Swim Gents were formed as a protest against what they described as ‘the meaningless of life.’ In other words, like Eric Scott’s character, they were all having a mid-life crisis. In 2007 they actually won the Men’s World Championship – yes, it really exists – and in 2017 when Swimming with Men was filmed, they regrouped to play themselves in the movie.
Ultimately, while Swimming with Men may be lightweight, it amuses, even if there are no big laughs. When Scott first joins the team, he’s told the rules. Rule number one: No one talks about swim club. “What goes in the pool, stays in the pool,” he’s instructed. And when talking to his son Billy (Spike White) about his new hobby, Scott says, “I want you to be proud of me.” “With what?” asks an incredulous Billy. “Swimming with men?”
MPAA Rating: NR Length: 96 Minutes