Swimming with Sharks

swimshrk“Shut up, listen, and learn,” hisses Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey) to his cringing assistant Guy (Frank Whaley) in the indie black comedy Swimming with Sharks. Buddy, a senior production executive at Keystone Pictures, enjoys grinding his lackeys into the dirt, where they belong. The protagonist, Guy, is perhaps meant to be writer-director George Huang’s nightmare of what he might have turned into. Huang did time as a schlepper at various studios; when he met Robert Rodriguez around the time that El Mariachi was the toast of Hollywood, Huang was inspired to quit his job and make his own movie. The result is smooth and sometimes funny. But Huang errs on the side of modesty. He hollows Guy out, gives him no inner life, and lets Buddy — and Kevin Spacey — dominate the movie.

Spacey makes a magnificent prick. When Buddy launches into one of his imitation-Joel-Silver tirades — “Let me hear you say ‘Would you like that in a pump or a loafer?’ Because from now on you’re gonna be selling shoes!” — or tells Guy, “Your opinion means nothing. Your feelings mean nothing. You are nothing. You are here for me,” Spacey takes such palpable delight in being a suave hard-ass that it’s impossible not to like him. Huang gives Buddy a sob story to explain why he’s so inhuman, but he doesn’t need to. Spacey’s performance has a subtext of compassion. Buddy, we feel, used to be Guy — an idealistic kid who entered the studio inferno with visions of celluloid dancing in his head. After years of taking abuse and humiliation, Buddy is in charge now, and he believes it’s his turn to dish out abuse — he’s earned it. Spacey makes us see how idealism can calcify, over years of disappointment and stress, into cynicism, self-hatred, cruelty. For the first time, I empathized with bastards like Buddy (who are plentiful outside Hollywood as well).

I wish I could say the same for Guy. He’s as generically named as Buddy, but he’s also generically written. Guy, an aspiring writer, enters the lion’s den hoping to work his way up to a position of creative importance. Generally, this is the route of the talentless — the route of people like Buddy, or Guy’s predecessor Rex (Benicio Del Toro), who’s hopping over to an executive spot at Universal. (The studio or the park?) We never see Guy writing his own stuff (he doesn’t have time), but he does suggest changes to a promising script being shopped around by senior vice-president Dawn (Michelle Forbes). Guy’s big brainstorm is to get a hot new John Singleton-type director (T.E. Russell) to commit to the script, and the grateful Dawn seduces Guy. This part of the movie is cloudy. Do Guy and Dawn really feel for each other, or are they just using each other? Huang doesn’t tell us. Michelle Forbes has glamour and a smart, deep voice, but her features don’t open up to the camera — she’s as opaque to us as she is to Guy.

Frank Whaley, playing a hapless schmoe doing ten things at once, doesn’t have anything specific to play except masochism and then sadism. All the studio stuff, it turns out, is flashback. Huang cuts from the main plot to a present-day framing device in which the crazed Guy ties Buddy to a chair and tortures him — savaging his hair, his face. This may be cathartic for Huang, but it’s largely unpleasant for us, especially when Huang out-Tarantinos Tarantino by using an envelope as an instrument of torture. The humor turns brutish and rancid. The ending is “true,” I suppose, but it leaves us with nothing. Swimming with Sharks is another vengeful acid-bath telling us how vicious Hollywood is (does anyone not know that by now?). It’s a persuasive argument for aspiring young filmmakers to stay out of the shark tank, but that’s all it is. Huang can’t get enough of the scenes in which Guy mutilates Buddy. Once Huang cast Kevin Spacey, he should have rewritten the script to reflect the real, human monster Spacey gives us. Nothing Guy can do to Buddy is as horrible and disfiguring as what Buddy has done to himself.

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