Saturday 9 January 2021

Movie Review: Swimming With Sharks (1994)

A dramatic satire set in the movie-making world, Swimming With Sharks attempts to provide commentary on the price of career success but surrenders to rampant bad behaviour and excessive shouting.

In Hollywood, despondent personal assistant Guy (Frank Whaley) finally snaps after a year of abuse at the hands of his boss, studio big-shot Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey). Guy invades Buddy's house, ties him to a chair and starts to inflict torture. In flashback, the story of the two men is revealed.

Buddy has a reputation as a tough boss but also a career-maker in the tough movie business. Guy lands the coveted job as Buddy's assistant but soon realizes he has to put up with a non-stop stream of verbal abuse and humiliation. Guy meets and falls in love with producer Dawn (Michelle Forbes), which makes his life a bit more tolerable. But once Guy experiences the extent of Buddy's blatant backstabbing, he decides to extract revenge.

A sparse attempt at dark comedy, Swimming With Sharks has just the three main characters and is mostly set in a couple of offices and one house. Writer and director George Huang succumbs early and often to scene after scene of Buddy relishing his ability to admonish, abuse and belittle his underlings. Although the toxic work environment is not necessarily unrealistic and despite a typically acidic Kevin Spacey performance, after about the fourth barrage of one-way insults, the tone shifts from marginally comic to quite tiresome and obviously repetitive.

The romance between Guy and Dawn provides some relief from the foul mouthed insult-hurling, but Frank Whaley and Michelle Forbes share limited chemistry, and a producer choosing to bed a peeon assistant is far-fetched.

The tables-are-turned scenes of Guy restraining then torturing Buddy discredit Guy as a sympathetic character. While he has every right to fall off an emotional edge, Guy also accepted to work for Buddy knowing full well and from the first day the abuse that awaited.

Buddy repetitively pitches the "what do you really want?" question at Guy, attempting to conflate ambition with tolerance for shocking mistreatment, subversively egging horrid behaviour as the only pathway to success. Swimming With Sharks offers no considered debate, and earns neither the laughs nor the right to draw any conclusions.

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