The swimming is synchronized in “Sink or Swim,” and so is the scripting: Gilles Lellouche’s feelgood buddy comedy so painstakingly mimics the rhythms and motions of assorted men-in-quirky-crisis farces from across the Channel that it may as well have been titled “The Pool Monty.” Gathering an A-team of French thesps to play a decidedly less well-qualified squad of million-dollar mermen, this story of disenfranchised middle-aged schmoes who decide — for reasons barely clear to them, much less the viewer — to find renewed purpose in water ballet is as harmless as it is silly, but dampened by idle gags, empty characterization and an inordinate two-hour runtime. The reliably charismatic work of its players, notably ringleader Mathieu Amalric, keeps this somewhat soggy macaron diverting, but it’s hard to see audiences showing much interest outside France, where it should do, well, swimmingly.
A chirpily commercial enterprise through and through, “Sink or Swim” seemed out of its league even in the typically uneven noncompeting strand of the Cannes official selection. That badge may add some improbable arthouse cred to the international marketing materials of a film that will play more comfortably in French multiplexes — where “The Players,” a bawdy portmanteau comedy bearing Lellouche’s last directorial credit, rustled up $20 million in 2012. As the actor-filmmaker’s first solo outing behind the camera, the film is assembled with enough colorful, market-savvy proficiency to invite further lightweight assignments: Laurent Tangy’s widescreen cinematography keeps matters bright and bobbing, though you’d never guess that indie favorite and former Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Jon Brion is the man behind the perky, precious score.
Somewhat surprisingly, Lellouche has opted to keep himself out of the onscreen ensemble, where his rumpled charm would have served the material perfectly — not that anyone here is an inadequate subtitute. From the outset, Amalric’s soulful hangdog quality brings more depth and detail than the script (by Lellouche, Ahmed Hamidi and Julien Lambroschini) warrants in etching the stock protagonist Bertrand, a depressed family man who has been unemployed for two years, steadily losing the respect of his children and peers as his patient wife (Marina Foïs, tartly making the best of a bad job) battles to keep his head up for him. One of the few decisions he does make for himself, however, is to pursue a classified ad recruiting new members for an all-male synchronized swimming team, coached with vim and tenacity by former aquatic champ Delphine (Virginie Efira); at his lowest ebb, despite no existing ability or affinity for the sport, he signs up.
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It’s at this point that “Sink or Swim” requires some Olympic-level suspension of disbelief from its audience. It’s not clear quite why the only respondents to this call are a gaggle of schlubby, midlife-crisis underachievers who can’t dance on land, much less in water, but so it proves, and Bertrand soon finds out that he’s far from the saddest sack in the pool. Lellouche and his co-writers spend minimal time on the arcs of his teammates, who include hot-headed divorcee Laurent (Guillaume Canet), never-was rock musician Simon (Jean-Hugues Anglade), near-broke pool salesman (Benoît Poelvoorde) and naive, bully-bait custodian Thierry (Philippe Katerine). That none ever emerges as a distinct, sympathetic personality in his own right rather limits our rooting interest in their collective redemption — though at least they fare better than the group’s lone member of color, South Asian immigrant Avanish (Balasingham Thamilchelvan), whose sole character trait is his supposedly hilarious inability to speak French.
Of course, if the crew weren’t this moobed and motley, the enterprise would be stripped of its primary visual joke: the conflict between delicate choreography and flailing dadbods, repeated ad nauseum until suddenly, inexplicably, they start to cohere like the macho water lilies they were apparently meant to be. The film then proceeds to overplay its absurd hand, lurching into drastic, protracted over-plotting — the subplot of one character’s alcoholism is fleetingly raised, ignored and suddenly solved — and an international-contest climax that just about enters the realm of fantasy.
The beauty of the underdog everyman comedies (like “The Full Monty” or “Brassed Off”) on which this trifle has so blatantly been modeled is that the situational stakes remained relatively small, dwarfed by the internal triumphs of credible characters. Here, we never quite believe these men, much less their ludicrous quest, all of which makes Amalric’s cod-philosophical framing narration about overcoming obstacles and finding your place in the world ring a bit hollow. (And that’s to say nothing of the film’s women, who are predictably given as few distinguishing characteristics as possible to distract from the lycra-clad sausage-fest.) “Sink or Swim” floats most happily when it aims lowest, netting easy laughs — or at least smiles — from the spectacle of some of France’s finest dramatic actors clad in Speedos, letting their hair down, their stomachs out, and splashing around to the soft-rock strains of (why not?) Phil Collins’ “Easy Lover.” If that’s enough for you, jump in: the water’s warm.