Friday, 15 July 2011
Swimming with Sharks
Starring: Frank Whaley, Kevin Spacey, Michelle Forbes, Benecio Del Toro
By Alan Bacchus
While The Devil Wears Prada has much in common with Swimming with Sharks, an office film featuring a high-strung executive beating down a lowly assistant for the sake of comedy, George Huang's film, even this many years later, has infinitely more truth and heart than the other more successful film.
I was struck by how honest the relationship between Huang’s two combatants is. Kevin Spacey is Buddy Ackerman (apparently a disguised Scott Rudin) and Frank Whaley is his green office assistant, Guy. No matter how absurd or dark the film becomes, Huang always stays within the boundaries of realism. I’ve been in Guy’s position before, working for a few of these types of personalities. They do exist, and in show business this type of behaviour is accepted and encouraged. Buddy Ackerman is a top executive for a Hollywood production company, someone with little time to accept anything but complete subservience from his staff. Guy is the new guy, a sharp young man with dreams of making it big.
Guy’s first lesson comes from the outgoing assistant played by Benicio Del Toro. It’s a fun sequence, as he describes the ins and outs and unofficial rules of the Hollywood game. The banter is funny but also to-the-letter realistic. It doesn’t take long for the battles to begin. Immediately Guy gets reamed for using the wrong sugar in his coffee. Over the course of the year we watch as Guy gains confidence and the relationship shifts from slave to colleague to a competitor for Buddy.
When Guy ingratiates himself to a female producer and client of Buddy's he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. She’s a confidante with whom he can share his frustrations, not to mention a genuinely emotional romantic relationship.
Huang moves the film toward a dark and twisting plot of revenge – a flash-forward sequence is intercut showing Guy's kidnapping and torturing of Buddy for heinous ill treatment.
Swimming with Sharks arrived at a time when independent film began a resurgence. It was the Tarantino era, and we feel it in every foot of this film. Films like The Player and Living in Oblivion opened us up to the inner workings of Hollywood executives. Even the story of Tarantino’s discovery was well known. He was a film junkie and former video store clerk who schmoozed Hollywood into letting him in the door. Guy's journey is much the same as a wet-behind-the-ears nave exposed to the unscrupulous world of Hollywood.
Spacey is fun as Ackerman, spouting some finely crafted insults, but we never fully understand whether this is exaggeration or a caricature. I'm hesitant to even label this as a comedy. The finale ventures into a disturbing area of dark cynicism, like The Bad and the Beautiful or Sunset Boulevard, dispelling all the romanticism of the movie business. I’ve been in Guy's shoes and it’s scary.