Swimming with Sharks (1994)

R   |    |  Comedy, Crime

Swimming with Sharks (1994) Poster

A young, naive Hollywood studio assistant finally turns the tables on his incredibly abusive producer boss.

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  • Michelle Forbes and Frank Whaley in Swimming with Sharks (1994)
  • Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks (1994)
  • Kevin Spacey and Michelle Forbes in Swimming with Sharks (1994)
  • Kevin Spacey and Frank Whaley in Swimming with Sharks (1994)
  • Kevin Spacey and Frank Whaley in Swimming with Sharks (1994)
  • Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks (1994)

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21 September 2010 | abyoussef
| "The Player" meets "Office Space." The Inside Dope On Hollywood Off Of The Red Carpet.
by Dane Youssef

Now here's a movie for those looking for an attack on white-collar corporate office life, the spinning gears of Hollywood.

"Swimming With Sharks" seems to owe more than a little something to "Dilbert." The movie is more about Corporate America than Hollywood. There are a lot of white-collar touches that apply to offices, cubicles and other such rather than the Hollywood spin machine. Like Robert Altman's "The Player," this is one of those thrillers about people in "the biz" who are driven to the breaking point by how cruel L.A. can really be.

The film's writer/director George Huang himself was a former personal assistant to some of the biggest names in Hollywood, has described the movie as "20% autobiographical." Much of this one is said to be based on his experience working for noted mega-mogul producer Joel Silver for Columbia Pictures. So it should come as no surprise what-so-ever that his first crack at film was his own life story.

Surprise, surprise, huh? Well, more or less.

Despite Kevin Spacey being the big name in this movie and him getting first-billing, Frank Whaley ("Career Opportunities") is the star of this one. Most of anything with him head-lining is a sign of a bad movie ("Cold Dog Soup" and "The Jimmy Show"), but this is one of those where he shines because he's allowed to. He's not the most versatile actor, the best-looking or the most charismatic. He's had a rep as being something of the life-long "bit player." But when he's given a movie, script and part which allows him any headway, he damn well manages to make the most of it.

Spacey, being one of Hollywood's finest and renown, is able to pull off the screaming antagonistic drill-instructor and the restrained, tortured hostage here pitch perfectly.

Whaley effectively plays the green, naive wide-eyed rookie to the Hollywood roulette wheel with his usual perfection, but when the other shoe drops, he doesn't quite pull off the scorned, disgruntled employee seeking revenge. His Jekyll isn't as convincing as his Hyde. He doesn't scare us. He never seems truly unhinged. Maybe that's why Whaley sticks to the youthful deer-in-the-headlights. Whaley doesn't really seem as demented and unhinged as he should in his captor scenes. He's best as a whipping boy--which is why he plays so many.

1994 was the official year for Spacey. He got his breakout with the TV series "Wiseguys," and made the big screen transition with worthwhile fare like his Oscar-winning supporting role in "The Usual Suspects," "The Ref," "Se7en" and this. Spacey monopolized himself in the '94 as "absolute talent" (my term).

Benecio Del Toro, the "Brad Pitt of Mexico" (someone else's quote, believe me, I never dubbed him such) has a quickie cameo as Spacey's assistant who's given his three weeks' notice and is on the way out, making way for Guy. But not before giving Whaley some final parting words of wisdom. "Protect his interests, serve his needs. What you think means nothing. What you feel means nothing. You have no brain. He yells all the time. It's a lose-lose situation." This job is a fast-track shortcut to the top and if Guy does right and keeps his mouth open wide to catch all of Buddy's crap, he may very well be someday on the same mantel as Buddy and his former assistants. Everything Guy'll ever need to know about his job, he learns on day one.

Enter Dawn Locklard (Michelle Forbes of "Guiding Light" and "24"), another powerful Hollywood producer who Guy doesn't have the best first meeting with. She doesn't show a lot of warmth, which explains why she's a producer.

She herself is angry and cynical, and throughout the course of the film, we will see why. She eventually warms up to Guy and asks him out. Guy is stunned. But she needs Buddy on her side and is interested in him getting behind her new project. Guy sees this as an opportunity. Her new project for the studio, "Real Life" may just be Guy's window of opportunity. She seems to be interested in Guy because he's the most real thing she's seen in the Valley for the longest time. But does she really feel something for him or is she just using him? Is Buddy two- faced and back-stabbing or is Dawn? Guy no longer knows what's real and what's what?

Although when Guy starts to show some spine after a lot of Buddy's tantrums, the payoff is almost evenly matched with the faux-sugar scene. Buddy gets to emotionally, verbally (and at times, physically) abuses Guy (and apparently all his assistant's) on every possible occasion. He also gets to skewer just about everyone who crosses his path.

"Swimming With Sharks" is no featherweight comedy for a slow night about a bullying boss like the trailer lead you to believe. It's a film which deals with white-collar office comedy and torturous drama. Shifting from a lightweight comedy to a torturous thriller. It's sort of schizophrenic thing. We're laughing heartily one minute and horrified the next. A lot of time, this one keeps us guessing as it criss-crosses from Buddy torturing Guy to vice-versa.

But there's a lot (maybe too much) about this one that rings too-true to life. A lot of moments filled with the harsh insights and disillusioned truths that one learns from living an uncharmed life. And so there's illuminating light and lessons, as well as laughs. Not to mention some great heavier moments where ugly secrets about Buddy and... well, surprisingly Dawn are revealed.

The plot is over-developed and the ending is more poetic than anything else. But most of the movie really does work and really does sticks with you... like all the great ones do.

--Hoo-Ray For Corporate Hollywood, Dane Youssef

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