'Sink or Swim' ('Le Grand bain'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

'The Full Monty' in Speedos.

Mathieu Amalric and Guillaume Canet lead Gilles Lellouche's uplifting seriocomedy about a group of disenchanted men who find fresh self-esteem in a synchronized swimming team.

Actor-turned-director Gilles Lellouche coaxes a motley assortment of Frenchmen to shake off their midlife malaise by celebrating their inner Esther Williams in the utterly formulaic Sink or Swim. This is the kind of feelgood comedy-drama the Brits have been rehashing with semi-regularity since the 1990s, with misfits and underdogs discovering strength and a sense of purpose in unity, preferably with a liberating performance element. The main difference here is that being French, it's ten times as talky, making for a sluggish two hours that delivers only in a triumphant final act that's as improbable as it is inevitable.

A pedestrian commercial entertainment like this one seems an odd choice for Cannes, even in the always somewhat random Out-of-Competition grab bag. It's perhaps even a tad awkward in a year of heightened attention to female-forward stories that the programmers would find a slot for this good-hearted but tired exploration of the bruised psyches of emasculated middle-aged white guys. (There is one actor of color in the principal cast, but his function is primarily that of a chubby visual gag.) Perhaps the fact that they throw themselves into a traditionally female sport, enduring digs at their manhood, gets the movie a pass.

The justification for the film's presence on the Lumiere screen no doubt is a starry ensemble of familiar faces, led by Mathieu Amalric, Guillaume Canet, Jean-Hugues Anglade and Belgian goofball Benoit Poelvoorde, who demonstrates here that his propensity for mugging prevails even underwater. Those names should goose box office in French-speaking territories, though despite some crowd-pleasing elements, the film has neither the originality nor the finesse to travel far.

Written by Lellouche, Ahmed Hamidi and Julien Lambroschini, the movie opens with a worrying barrage of overwritten voiceover and a cutesy montage tracing the path from birth through midlife disappointment before arriving at the conclusion that a square peg never fits in a round hole. Enter Bertrand (Amalric), who laces his breakfast cereal with a handful of anti-depressants before settling on the sofa to play Candy Crush. He's been off work in a funk for two years, but his loving wife Claire (Marina Fois) is emotionally supportive, refusing to judge him even when prodded by her intrusive sister (Melanie Doutey) and arrogant douche of a brother-in-law (Jonathan Zaccai).

When Bertrand sees a notice at the municipal pool soliciting new members for a men's amateur synchronized swimming team, he signs up for the sole reason that there wouldn't be a movie if he didn't.

Ranging in age from late 30s through mid 50s, Bertrand's fellow aquatic athletes include Laurent (Canet), a factory manager with anger issues that cost him his marriage; failed rocker Simon (Anglade), who lives in his camper van/recording studio, still dreaming of being the next Robert Plant; Marcus (Poelvoorde), whose swimming pool and spa business is on the verge of bankruptcy; and pool maintenance staffer Thierry, an exuberantly friendly man-child mocked by the men's polo team. Serving as low-key comic sidekicks are Avanish (Balasingham Thamilchelvan), a South Asian immigrant with minimal command of French; and Basile (Alban Ivanov), who understands him despite their lack of a common language.

When Thierry finds information online about a world men's synchronized swimming championship, the group suddenly has something to aim for. They seem to do this with zero red tape required to appoint themselves the French national team, but whatever.

Drilled by Delphine (Virginie Efira), a recovering alcoholic with her own sadness, the men make scant progress, though they regularly open up about their personal frustrations after practice over a joint in the sauna or a drink at the bar. When Delphine gets sidelined, leaving their training in the hands of her paraplegic former swim-team partner Amanda (Leila Bekhti), the latter's whip-cracking boot-camp style stuns them into submission even if it doesn't initially do a lot for their technique. But once the two women join forces, their good cop/bad cop combo yields results, giving the guys a sense of camaraderie and communal strength.

Most of this follows a predictable course, pushing all the required buttons on cue, though the actors keep it watchable enough, particularly Amalric and Canet, who have the most fully developed arcs with the most emotional shading. Anglade also has touching moments as Simon struggles to connect with his teenage daughter Lola (Noee Abita), mortified that her dad works in the school cafeteria. While Canet is quite trim, it's refreshing that most of the French crew have the imperfect, unmanscaped bodies of average middle-aged dudes, not sculpted movie stars.

The humor is sometimes strained, and Lellouche doesn't always demonstrate the lightest of touches. I could have done with less of Poelvoorde's tiresome character, who seems to have wandered in from a much broader comedy, though he does help explain the Gallic veneration for Jerry Lewis.

The movie's pacing is inconsistent, and at two full hours it lacks economy, but it picks up in the final stretch as they pile into Simon's van and head to Norway to compete. They tremble while witnessing the immaculate form of the host nation's team as well as those from Japan and Germany. But anyone familiar with the infinite versions of this story will know not to underestimate the scrappy outsiders. Visually, too, this section picks up a notch, with snappy footage of their routine, set to Philip Bailey and Phil Collins' "Easy Lover."

That's one of a handful of pop hits sprinkled through the film that date back to the characters' youths, including Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," which pinpoints where they are now in the underlined lyric: "Welcome to your life. There's no turning back." Lellouche and his co-writers could have done a lot more to show the ungainly group's growing confidence in the pool, but a montage to Olivia Newton-John's "Physical," with the guys practicing their moves at home and work, is so shamelessly cheesy it's almost endearing. Besides, any movie that works in vintage ONJ can't be all bad.

Production companies: Tresor Films, Chi-Fou-Mi Productions
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Guillaume Canet, Benoit Poelvoorde, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Virginie Efira, Leila Bekhti, Marina Fois, Philippe Katerine, Felix Moati, Alban Ivanov, Balasingham Thamilchelvan, Jonathan Zaccai, Melanie Doutey, Noee Abita, Claire Nadeau
Director: Gilles Lellouche
Screenwriters: Gilles Lellouche, Ahmed Hamidi, Julien Lambroschini
Producers: Alain Attal, Hugo Selignac
Director of photography: Laurent Tangy
Production designer: Florian Sanson
Costume designers: Elise Bouquet, Reem Kuzayli
Music: Jon Brion
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Choreographer: Julie Fabre
Casting: Sandra Durando
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: StudioCanal

122 minutes