As Hollywood satire, Swimming With Sharks is nothing particularly new. It's The Player mixed with David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow and a perverse pinch of Reservoir Dogs--Tinseltown bile and a drop or two of blood. This small film is worth seeing, though, for the cleanly written, bitchy dialogue by George Huang, and for the stunning star turn by Kevin Spacey. Spacey is one of those actors who makes a fine living playing banal parts in films like Outbreak, but who now and then pulls off something that puts his famous colleagues to shame.
Spacey made an astonishing guest shot on an episode of L.A. Law, in which he played an eccentric businessman with such zest that he made sanity seem unbearably dull. In Swimming With Sharks, he plays another button-down maniac, this one not so benign. Buddy Ackerman, a production exec for Keystone Films, is the archetypical Boss From Hell--cruel, arrogant, paranoid, deceitful, mercurial, pompous and sarcastic.
The brunt of these character traits is borne by his hapless personal assistant, who must also serve as his valet and, at times, his procurer. Buddy demands absolute, mindless slave labor from the holder of this position, and the rewards are such that he knows he'll get it--the job is usually a steppingstone to an executive office of one's own.
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His current victim is Guy (Frank Whaley), a film-school grad from back east who whines a lot about the miseries of working for Buddy to his new girlfriend (Michelle Forbes), but who puts up with them just the same because he knows he wouldn't have the girlfriend in the first place without his association with Buddy. His wanna-be friends see him as a big shot, and Buddy keeps the vague promise of future payoffs dangling behind his tirades and tantrums and sneering put-downs.
It's as good a way as any to dramatize Hollywood ambition--the system is slimy to the core, and everybody knows it, but it's also too lucrative for most people to resist participating in if they get the chance. Even if Buddy weren't a complete S.O.B. by nature--and he probably was--the system would have turned him into one by the time he reached such a high level.
It's nothing we haven't heard before, not only about the movie industry but about most big-time pursuits. It's probably true, but it's not breaking news. But the picture works because Spacey digs into his flashy part with such relish--his Buddy is no ordinary office tyrant; he's a fascinating monster, scary not just for his wrath but also for his shrewdness, his acuity, his occasional seductiveness. The story is told in flashback, from a clever frame in which Guy, apparently pushed over the brink, takes Buddy prisoner and torments him. Huang directs simply but skillfully, even slipping in unobtrusive allusions to Sunset Boulevard and The Godfather, Part II.
Whaley isn't as lucky here as he has been in past roles. Guy isn't vividly drawn, and he's often so foolish in his attempts to handle Buddy that it's hard to feel sorry for him when he gets humiliated. Forbes, the strong, sexy actress who stood out as David Duchovny's girlfriend in Kalifornia, is striking again here. But Spacey is the film's real juice--this comic villain is an instant-classic performance. It's the sort of work that deserves to win awards, but rarely does.--