The Good: Most of the acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Long build-up before all the characters become worth watching, Utterly unpleasant to watch
The Basics: Kevin Spacey foreshadows pretty much his entire career with exceptional range as the villain in Swimming With Sharks!
Since I managed to get my wife into House Of Cards (season 2 is reviewed here!), she has gotten into the works of Kevin Spacey. So, it seems like I’m going to be watching and reviewing all of the Kevin Spacey movies I’ve missed over the years. I loved Spacey in The Usual Suspects (reviewed here!) and American Beauty (reviewed here!), but there have been so many films with Spacey that I have missed a couple over the years. Today’s “Kevin Spacey Catch-up” film is Swimming With Sharks.
Swimming With Sharks is a dark film that was one of Spacey’s underperforming independent films. Given how it is essentially Hard Candy (reviewed here!) where the viewer actually knows what is going on from almost the first frames, it is unsurprising that Swimming With Sharks was a box office flop. So many people in the world live under the yolk of forces bigger than themselves (in terms of business/capitalist influences), so the expectation that the masses would want to watch such things in their down time is somewhat ridiculous. Moreover, given the ethically murky end to the film, it is similarly unsurprising that those at the top of the economic pyramid would actually learn a lesson by watching Swimming With Sharks.
Opening with the young, ambitious Guy at his breaking point, drawing a gun on his boss, Buddy Ackerman, in Ackerman’s house, Swimming With Sharks bounces between the past and present to tell its story. In the present, Guy has snapped and he loudly demands that Buddy give him respect, apologize for how horribly he has treated Guy for the past year, and submit to his torture. Buddy delays as best he can, taking the cuts and beatings from Guy, while still asking his personal assistant what it is that he truly wants. Woven amid the torture scenes are extended flashbacks to show the build-up to how Guy reached his breaking point and how Buddy pushed him there.
On his first day, Guy accidentally parks in film producer/executive Dawn Lockard’s spot and is yelled at by Lockard. Guy then goes into his job where he meets Rex, Buddy’s former assistant, who does his best to train him in how to manage the film executive. But, when Guy brings Buddy Equal instead of Sweet & Low (which is what Buddy asked him for), Buddy yells (loudly) at Guy in front of the entire office. By the end of the first week, Lockard has approached Guy to befriend him (ostensibly to protect him from Buddy, but also quite obviously so that Guy will give her access to Buddy so her script gets put into production with a hot up-and-coming director) and Buddy continues to find reasons to yell at Guy and demean him for doing his job. Amid the inconsistent reinforcement, Guy manages to get Buddy to bite on Lockard’s project (though Buddy takes credit for it) and the young assistant actually starts dating Lockard. But over the course of the year, Buddy’s impatience and anger rubs off on Guy and pushes him to the breaking point, undoing all of the work he has put in to make it in Hollywood.
Swimming With Sharks might have been a better film if it had begun with the answer to the key question that Buddy asks Guy over and over and over in the film: “What do you want?” If Guy’s actual goals were at all clear, the viewer might care about where he ends up or have some idea that Buddy is actually a means to achieving his goals. Instead, the viewer empathizes with Guy simply because no one ought to be put into the position where another person treats them so poorly.
That, of course, does not justify Guy torturing Buddy and as a result, the viewer has to go on faith that the incident that pushes Guy over the edge is sufficiently bad to justify his horrible actions. Unfortunately, because Guy’s goals are not known until the final frames of the film, Buddy’s excuse of “you’ve been free to leave all along” resonates more potently than Guy’s indignation. Guy puts up with Buddy’s poor treatment of him, but he makes the conscious choice to stay in Buddy’s employ (Guy is a man who has virtually unlimited career options at the outset of the film, so destitution is not at all a concern of the protagonist).
As one would expect from a film with Kevin Spacey, Buddy Ackerman is not presented as monolithically evil character. Instead, Ackerman has layers and they come out in the course of Swimming With Sharks. Ackerman’s personal tragedy does not justify his treatment of Guy, but it does make him more multi-faceted and it allows him to get in a few essential points that could otherwise be buried by a less skillful filmmaker/writer. Instead, writer/director George Huang uses Ackerman’s backstory to justify some of his anger and, more importantly, land some points on how Guy’s generation operates on a principle of instant gratification. That makes it possible to empathize with Ackerman some.
The character that is ultimately least interesting is Dawn Lockard. Lockard is presented as a character who appears to want to do good and help Guy, but is doing so in such a transparent way that viewers are unlikely to be at all surprised that her true allegiance is only to herself. While Michelle Forbes does a decent job of playing Lockard, the character arc is predictable enough to seem like one of her less impressive roles.
Kevin Spacey does a decent job as Buddy Ackerman, never letting his character break, though he is given a single monologue with which to soften Ackerman’s crusty exterior. It works and Spacey makes Ackerman a mostly horrible character, with some distinctly human characteristics that make it harder to write off his personal history. The film is dominated, though, by Frank Whaley. Whaley plays Guy and it is a very bland, white bread performance that is as indistinct as the character he is playing. Whaley does not bring any real force of character or sense that Guy is anything other than a mid-level office worker to the role. In other words, Whaley does not hint that Guy could be anything more than Buddy’s assistant and that works to the detriment of Swimming With Sharks.
Ultimately, Swimming With Sharks is a fairly average film with a good-enough theme to be worth watching, even if its theme is a bit overstated and its tone is oppressive.
For other works with Michelle Forbes, please visit my reviews of:
True Blood - Season 2
Lost - Season 4
Homicide: The Movie
Homicide: Life On The Street - Season Six
Homicide: Life On The Street - Season Five
"Preemptive Strike" - Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 6
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 5
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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