The Underrated: Swimming With Sharks
Remember back when Kevin Spacey actually made good movies? I think it was just before he was launched into superstardom by the Usual Suspects. It was certainly before he took up dog walking in one of London’s most notorious gay pick up areas. Anyhow, around about this time, the mid 90’s, he churned out a series of exceptional performances in exceptional films. Some of them, such as Seven and The Usual Suspects itself are rightly heralded, but this little film, Swimming With Sharks, was probably his first great performance and slipped right under the radar. I love this film unconditionally, as I recognise a lot of my own experience at work in it, but I can see why it has almost been forgotten about.
Swimming With Sharks had an interesting genesis. George Huang, writer/ director, was a lowly assistant in Hollywood. He was bitching one day to Robert Rodriguez about how shit his life was, and how he was never going to be able to make films, when Rodriguez encouraged him to write this down, because he had all the material he’d ever need there. The result was Swimming With Sharks, and I’m astonished it ever got made. There’s some speculation as to the identity of the “Buddy” character, with Joel Silver being favourite due to Spacey being all about Action Movies (he’s once described by Time as being a “blight on society”), but having cut my teeth in the Music Industry I happen to think he’s more of amalgam of every shitty boss out there in the so-called creative industries. I think anyone out there, to some extent, will recognise some of Spacey’s traits (noticeably destroying your confidence under the guise of helpful advice), and it is one of the film’s real strengths that there is an “Everyboss” quality to him.
Guy (Frank Whaley) is fresh out of film school. He’s landed a plum job as Buddy Ackerman’s (Kevin Spacey) assistant, one he believes will lead him on to better things. Despite warnings from Spacey’s departing assistant (Benicio Del Toro), and words of advice, Guy throws his all into the job. However, Spacey is a 100 Carat bastard, and spends his working days humiliating him, breaking his confidence and otherwise destroying Guy’s life. Guy begins a relationship with Dawn (Michelle Forbes, looking like she could eat him for breakfast), a producer with Keystone, and starts to develop a project (sounds like exactly the sort of horrible Gen-X whinefests like Reality Bites that were fairly typical at the time) with her. Spacey effectively steals the project, shits all over Guy’s life and this prompts Guy to take fairly drastic action- he ties Spacey to a chair, cuts him, tips various acidic cooking ingredients on him and whatnot. I won’t spoil the end of the film, but it is almost beyond nihilistic.
Firstly, the script here has a horrible ring of verisimilitude to it. I personally recognise loads of the abuse that Buddy dishes out to Guy, as I’ve heard it myself on more than one occasion- in particular the “all my assistants go on to great things” riff. Nevertheless, even if you have been lucky to not be on the receiving end of crap like this, the dialogue still sparkles. Take, for example, this:
What, your job is unfair to you? Grow up, way it goes. People use you? Life’s unfair? Grow up, way it goes. Your girlfriend doesn’t love you? Tough shit, way it goes.
Or describing what he wants to happen to the sound on a film:
I told you, it’s gotta be loud loud loud! The audience should feel their balls tremble, their ears should bleed!
Not to mention what is the definitive SWS speech:
You thought. Do me a fucking favor. Shut up, listen, and learn. Look, I know that this is your first day and you don’t really know how things work around here, so I will tell you. You have no brain. No judgement calls are necessary. What you think means nothing. What you feel means nothing. You are here for me. You are here to protect my interests and to serve my needs.
I’ve actually heard that one almost verbatim.
Spacey was born to play this part in may respects. He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the most charismatic, and he certainly isn’t the best looking. But he’s got great delivery, and a sarcastic drawl that cuts Whaley to the bone. Furthermore, you can easily visualise him as precisely the sort of slimy backstabbing cocksucker that having made the top of the totem pole would look around in constant terror at what his rivals are up to. Whaley is good as the naïve Guy, although his best parts are when his arrogance is up in the latter part of the film, while Forbes is very, very good as Dawn. This is a supremely acted film.
It is, believe it or not, caustically amusing even if always uncomfortable. There’s a fantastic sense of bitter irony to the film, and the satire here is both uncomfortably accurate and cutting as a bonesaw. Part of the reason Ackerman behaves like such a prick is because he can behave like such a prick. It’s the “why does the dog lick his balls” motivation again: because he can, and once he’s discovered that he can he doesn’t see any reason why not to. Buddy is an insecure monster who buys Rogaine even though he’s not losing his hair, and despite this will not tolerate any disagreement such as, in a darkly amusing scene, when Guy has the temerity to complain about being shouted at in the office. Buddy, naturally, rips him another asshole to teach him a lesson. This, incidentally, comes complete with faux-crying. Buddy is plagued by other types of insecurity, such as he believes that his equal, the never seen Stella, is trying to fuck him out of a promotion, and if he could get any more of Cyrus’ (his boss) cock down his throat then he’d be in severe danger of outright asphyxiation.
The thing is, though, Buddy knows and understands what he is doing to Guy. Several times (noticeably the pouring water scene) he laughs in glee at the bullying he’s inflicting on his powerless underling. Furthermore, he believes he is doing Guy a favour: he had to serve 10 years as an assistant himself, and he thinks he’s toughening Guy up. There is probably some truth to this, as nobody as star struck as Guy is would stand a prayer in Hollywood. Guy, however, doesn’t. He thinks that Buddy is just a sadist bastard for the sake of it, and believes, in some kind of pathetic Stockholm Syndrome mentality, that Buddy respects him.
Overall, this is a fantastic and unfairly overlooked film. I recognise so much of it, and as such it really strikes a chord with me, although I didn’t ever torture any of my bosses. There is one mantra that the film repeats constantly, and it bashes the point home with no little flair: “ask yourself, “What do you really want?””. Part of the reason that bastards like Buddy exist and can get away with it is that the Underlings don’t know what they want, other than some nebulous idea of working in the movie industry, and if they knew what they did want, then they sure as fuck wouldn’t put up with this crap. Sure, Swimming With Sharks tends towards the nihilistic in its final third, but that is the point: People like Buddy aren’t born, they’re forged, and if you get in bed with the devil, then someone is going to get fucked.
I strongly recommend Swimming With Sharks as a completely overlooked film from a totally underrated decade. The 90’s really were, in hindsight, a golden period.
Until next time,