This is the inaugural edition of a new feature, kind of an experiment. Basically, in each edition one of our writers will review a film they knew literally nothing about prior to watching. The film is assigned at random, the writer in question watches it completely cold and then writes about it (without looking up any further information in the interim). The guiding principle behind this concept is the nature of bias, the way that even any amount of background research has the potential to create it, or to alter expectations.
I took the first shift and was accordingly assigned by Jimmy to watch Swimming with Sharks. Having now done that, I’m not entirely sure how this film managed to pass me by, considering my burgeoning love for all things involving Kevin Spacey (except Call of Duty), but somehow it had. So yeah, first article of interest out of the way, this film has Kevin Spacey in it. It follows Guy, a young go-getter (Frank Whaley) taking on a new job as an assistant to a Hollywood producer named Buddy (Spacey) who has perhaps the most ironic first name since Happy from The Imposters. He’s every bit the frothing, ruthless, bloated bully of a producer we’ve come to expect, given the so many screenwriters working in the industry today formulated their ideal antagonist from that very image.
In fact, that’s kind of the guiding light of this entire movie. In the same way that American Psycho posited that psychosis has seeped into Wall Street to the point that a serial killer could slip through unnoticed, Swimming with Sharks shows us a Hollywood landscape so cutthroat that even when things escalate into matters of life and death, greed still reigns supreme. The film carries across two parallel timelines, the past one in which we see Guy gradually moving up the ladder, aided by his relationship with a talented writer/producer with a hot property screenplay (Michelle Forbes, refreshingly not playing somebody evil) and the present one, in which we see Guy broken and deranged, holding Buddy hostage and torturing him by way of revenge.
Initially it seems more simple than it actually is, a put-upon office doormat finally getting one over on his boss. In fact, as the film progresses it becomes less clear who is actually in control. The moral high ground ultimately ends up belonging to no-one. Guy has been snapped under the pressure of constant belittlement and liberated credit for all his hard work, Buddy’s coldness is a product of excruciating past tragedy, and it’s all a vicious cycle of use, abuse and disposal. Early in the film Buddy’s previous assistant (Benicio Del Toro, nice to see in a 90s film where you can actually understand what the hell he’s saying) says that the business is all about adapting to survive. Fittingly, Buddy and Guy’s overlapping turns as monsters are framed as an essential part of that process.
Before this I only really knew Frank Whaley as ‘the Big Kahuna Burger guy’ but I liked him a lot in this, he has to carry a lot of weight and does so admirably. Spacey is just a joy to watch from beginning to end. He’s always had the smarmy bastard thing down pat but this is one of the better examples, even the most ridiculous, cartoonish lines are delivered with such sharpness that you almost want to cheer (‘You’re happy. I hate that!’). Equally, when he finally lets an ounce of humanity leak through towards the end, it’s still a part of the same character, the illusion is never broken.
There are admittedly times when the film does come across as just another angry rebuttal of the Hollywood machine (I’d never heard of writer/director George Huang, but I’d hazard a guess that he was drawing on some amount of personal experience), but the characters are deep enough and interesting enough to keep it elevated. Watching this film reminded me how difficult this kind of blunt-force trauma cynicism is to get right, and how entertaining films that manage it can be. American Psycho is more subtle and more complex for sure, but Swimming with Sharks is probably the most apt West Coast counterpart for it that I’ve yet seen.