Tuesday May 21, 2019
Movie Review: Sink or Swim (2018)
In France they call it “Le Grand Bain,” or “The Big Bath,” and it’s basically “The Full Monty” meets that great 1985 SNL skit about men's synchronized swimming starring Martin Short, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. A a group of out-of-shape, middle-aged underdogs get involved in synch swimming because nothing else is going right with their lives. It’s got some French nuance, yes, but also nasty/snooty relatives out of central casting who get told off twice by our heroes—the second time to cheers from the Seattle Internatonal Film Fest crowd. Then it gets even more Hollywood. In an international competition in Norway, our heroes not only go the distance (see: “Rocky”), not only win (“Rocky II”), but win over the foreign crowd (“Rocky IV”).
Kind of disappointing.
Afterwards, my wife called it a pretty good feel-good movie, and she’s right, but even she was shocked when I told her it got nominated for 10 Cesars last year (including best director and best film), and won one (best supporting actor).
You get a story...and you get a story
It begins well, with a voiceover from our lead, Bertrand (Mathieu Amalric), a depressive, unemployed father of two, talking about the circles at the beginning of life (earth, sun, womb, etc.), and the squares at the end of it (casket, tombstone, etc.), before getting into the whole “can’t fit a square peg into a round hole” bit. Then our story begins. With him.
Today’s the day Bertrand is supposed to begin work again, or apply for a job, or something, after a year or two fighting depression. His kids don’t respect him, his wife, Claire (Marina Fois), is losing patience, and he’s got that hopeless faraway look in his eyes that Amalric can do standing on his head. Then he sees a flyer about a men’s synchronized swim team and tears off one of the phone-number stubs.
Why is this the answer to his ennui? He tries to explain it to the chain-smoking, alcoholic, but still quite lovely female instructor, Delphine (Virginie Efira), who was once a competitive synch swimmer herself, but he doesn’t have the words. Maybe the screenwriters don’t, either. They just need the thing to happen for the movie to move forward.
Delphine’s team is already full of men for whom life didn’t turn out as planned:
- Laurent (Guillaume Canet, the French Patrick Dempsey), who has a hair-trigger temper, a son who stutters (because of dad’s hair-trigger temper), and a mother suffering dementia
- Marcus (Benoit Poelvoorde) is an unethical scamp whose pool/hot tub business is about to go bankrupt
- Thierry (Philippe Katerine, our Cesar winner) is a quiet, good-natured sort whom everyone, particularly Marcus, takes advantage of
- Simon (Jean-Hugues Anglade), who has self-published 17 rock CDs without success, works in a lunchroom in the high school his superpretty daughter, Lola (Noée Abita), attends, and lives in an RV...but not down by the river
- Basil (comedian Alban Ivanov) has been denied a mortgage because he’s too old at 38. That’s pretty much all we know about him. He's kind of one-note
- Avanish (Balasingham Thamilchelvan) is also one-note: He doesn't speak French, but Basil responds to his comments as if everyone understands
I thought the movie's focus would be Bertrand but it is a true ensemble. We see Laurent’s wife and child leave him. We see him visiting his addled, abusive mother in a home, then bring her home to live with him—where she, in her dementia, continues to verbally abuse him. At least there’s that; at least she doesn’t get better because he puts in the effort. We don't get that lie.
We see Marcus struggle to keep his business afloat, going so far as to burn a company van to collect the insurance, but not realizing he’d stopped paying the insurance months earlier. Not a bad bit.
Simon plays a rock concert for geriatrics while Thierry is abused by jocks at the pool where he works. Oh, and Delphine isn’t just a chain-smoker who wound up in AA through the love a good man. No, she's actually stalking that man, a married man, who pleads angrily to leave him alone. An interesting turn. For a time, she’s replaced by Amanda (Leila Bekhti), a martinet in a wheelchair, who whips them in shape. Well, “shape.” They’re still fairly doughy at the end.
Is this too many storylines? Each gets a bit but none goes deep. Some are played for laughs, some for pathos. Bertrand goes to work for his asshole brother-in-law in a sad furniture shop, takes his abuse with an increasingly astonished look in his eyes, until we get a worm-turns moment when he tells him exactly what he thinks of him, his furniture and the shop. Then they take it outside. Cut to: A shot of the two of them, through the window, silently and ineptly grappling with one another. That was good; that made me laugh. It’s when Bertrand’s wife, who hasn’t exactly been supportive of her husband, tells off her snooty sister in a grocery store—to actual cheers from the SIFF crowd—that I began to shake my head. Make it funny or go home.
All of it leads to a male synch competition in Norway, which somehow they‘re able to enter as the French national team. The other teams are young, fit and well-financed, while our guys are not, not and not. They’re in a sweaty panic; but then they perform perfectly. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, to be honest. That they wouldn’t embarrass themselves mostly. But the movie has them win the whole thing. They come back to their small northern town with gold medals.
The sure thing
Apparently this French version, and a British version starring Rob Brydon that came out the same year, were both inspired by a 2010 documentary, “Men Who Swim,” which IMDb describes thus:
A humorous and poignant film about a group of middle-aged men who find unlikely success as members of Sweden's all-male synchronized swim team
A Hollywood version seems inevitable, but who to cast? In the French version, because the men are over-the-hill, their best days back in the 1980s, they cast actors who were stars in the ’80s. That would make sense for the Hollywood version, too, and there’s a host of options: John Cusack, Matthew Broderick, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez, on and on. If you allowed Delphine to be older, Holly Hunter would be perfect.
I just hope Hollywood's version is less Hollywood than the French one.