An underling’s ultimate revenge fantasy comes to life in George Huang’s caustic look behind the scenes at the functioning of Hollywood’s inner machinery. Based on his own time spent groveling for minute snatches of progress up the slippery totem pole at Columbia, Swimming for Sharks (1994) is essentially a satirical black comedy. Though it has similar pretensions to something like Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), there’s a much nastier twist in its tail.
Guy (Frank Whaley) has won a prime post as assistant to studio executive Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey). From the moment he crosses the threshold at Keystone Pictures he begins to understand how brutal his initiation will be. Firstly from the man he’s succeeding, Rex (Benicio Del Toro), and then from Buddy himself who strips him of all delusions by insisting he repeat an important mantra for total comprehension of his lowly status: “I……….have………no………..brain.”
From there he assumes duties as Buddy’s virtual slave, catering to his most insignificant whims, and needing to be available at his beck and call. The only empathy he receives is from producer Dawn (Michelle Forbes) who needs to remain in Guy’s good books for easy, well-oiled access to Buddy. A hesitant relationship develops through which the conundrum of personal versus professional duty is weighed up.
After a year however, and under threat of losing every inch of the progress he’s achieved, Guy snaps, deciding a little payback is due to bring Buddy’s insidious ego down a few pegs. Huang’s structure works to the film’s advantage, mixing and matching past and present tenses to reveal the progress of Guy’s night of magnificent revenge and his increasingly harsh indoctrination at Buddy’s hands.
Spacey tears up the screen as the cruel, torturous, belittling, megalomaniacal Buddy. It’s one of the many great roles of his career. With insults flowing like sharpened drill bits from his mouth he lets rip on the hapless Guy with demonic glee and reckless abandon. As uncomfortable as it to say this out loud……..it’s fun to watch! Humiliation, when somebody else is on the receiving end, has a cruel but truthful attraction to it; we all know that. And besides, amongst the thunderous, sarcastic effrontery included in Buddy’s profane, humiliating arsenal, there are highly quotable gems aplenty.
Whaley is well cast too in what has been a probable career high. He manages to exude a perfect mix of that believable everyman with enough ambition and fire in his belly to battle his way up the chain of command, whilst still retaining an integral wimpy aspect that most people can relate to. (Perhaps I speak for myself here)
Though the underutilised Forbes is typically good in the type of strong female role her brash but likable demeanor seems to engender, her relationship with Guy is never really believable. That’s a minor quibble however, because the showdown between Buddy and Guy is, ultimately, the main attraction, where the juiciest moments come to life.
As the past and present converge, Huang raises the stakes and the penultimate scene, rife with dire implications, leaves a momentary, mysterious void in its wake. A gun goes off: does anyone die? The answer is shockingly plausible, prompting a misshapen realignment of power; like much of the film’s content, it’s irony laced with arsenic.