Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Swimming with Sharks

Buddy Ackerman is the sort of Type A supervisor who'll waste his underling's moments with endless dressdowns, then scream at them at the end of the rant for not having moved the Earth while they were being yelled at. As played to perfection by Kevin Spacey in 1995's Hollywood scather SWIMMING WITH SHARKS, this sort of pirahna is certainly recognizable to Tinseltown footmen, but certainly also to anyone who has had a boss, teacher, coach, or drill instructor with such a personality.

When I first saw this movie, I was in fact reminded of R. Lee Ermey's electrifying scenes as a drill instructor in FULL METAL JACKET. Spacey is almost as creative with his obscenities and maybe just a notch or two below in intensity. During a discussion of JACKET with a former Marine co-worker years ago, I watched as he nodded his head as to the authenticity of Ermey's performance, recalling his own experiences as a private. He stated that his sargeant was so bullying and detestable that the private would spend hours formulating elaborate plans, step by step, as to how he would murder the old cuss.

Guy (Frank Whaley) likely also entertains such daydreams. After assuming his position as Buddy's (a well connected film mogul) go-to guy/slave, he learns quickly that cordiality and respect are indeed rare qualities in the L.A. entertainment world. He was warned by Buddy's outgoing assistant in the early scenes of this movie("not only is hitting below the belt expected in this town, it's rewarded"), but Guy's fresh out of film school optimism is buoyant. In a series of bravura scenes, Guy's morale will be deflated bit by bit as Buddy repeatedly destroys the young man's self-esteem with insults and barbs. "You want a friend," Buddy sneers, "get a dog."

"Shut up! Listen! Learn! is Buddy's trademark opening to his tirades. Some are comically mysognistic: when Guy suggests Penny Marshall as a director for a project, Buddy retrorts: "Avoid women directors. They ovulate. Do you have any idea what that does to an three month shoot?." Others are protypical of power/denial: when Buddy names "big" directors, he mentions David Lean. Guy reminds him that Lean is dead. "No he's not, don't you ever say that. He's just unavailable!"

Eventually, Guy will reach his last strand of patience and turn the tables, quite literally. Buddy finds himself bound to a chair in his own house, subjected to some physical and psychological revenge. It is here where SWIMMING WITH SHARKS attempts to become more than just a masochistic exercise, where the characters show their true selves, even if they still mean to cloak. Spacey demonstrates from start to finish what a consummate pro he is, infusing his rants with simultaneously frightening and comedic power, then demonstrating the dynamic nature of Buddy, a man with many of his own tools at his disposal. Whaley does fine as the put upon Guy, fresh meat ripe for the horrible molding. A kid who will have to decide, in a somewhat shocking finale, which path he truly wants to take. One of the darkest endings I've ever seen in a film will play out. I felt nauseated as I watched the ugly certainty of the final scene, yet I believed it could happen.

Writer/director George Huang must've created this movie as therapy for himself. He had fought in the trenches as an underling for some notorious real life producers, plus observed the behavior of folks like Scott Rudin, long known for his Draconian demeanor. Haung's script has moments of what seem like privileged insight and others that promote a sense of deja vu. Tying up your boss is not exactly a novel plot twist, as memories of NINE TO FIVE and other wish fulfillemnt pics came to mind. While this device allows for said soul baring and character development, most often it felt like melodrama. But then again, how else could the film take a restless being like Buddy out of his big pond and allow for some analysis?

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS, overally, falls short of its apparent goals of being a nasty little classic, another in the Trenchant Hollywood Satire genre to join the likes of THE PLAYER, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, S.O.B., and others. The writing and filmmaking is competent but far from the sort of artistry that say, Sidney Lumet employed for his television damnation, NETWORK. SWIMMING WITH SHARKS has the brio of a young writer/director who isn't afraid to play his scenario to its terrible end, but the path there is rendered with mediocrity (actors of course notwithstanding).

And again, Spacey is so good in this movie that he is reason enough to see it. His embodiment of Buddy is so natural you wonder at times if he is drawing on personal experience himself, as giver or recipient. He's in the biz, he's probably met a few Buddy Ackermans. Haven't we all?
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