Swimming with Sharks Review

The Film

There’s inevitably disagreement about which actor can be said to be the best of his or her generation (although Meryl Streep and Judi Dench tend to take most of the plaudits in the female category.) However, the sheer diversity of work that Kevin Spacey has undertaken in the last few years, and the talent with which he has portrayed potentially loathsome characters, must put him in the running, especially given his extraordinary ability to disappear inside the character’s skin; interestingly, both he and Cate Blanchett, his co-star in The Shipping News have stated that they’re not interested in being seen as ‘celebrities’, as they feel this gets in the way of their ability to portray characters. Buddy Ackerman, Spacey’s character in Swimming with Sharks would probably disapprove of this advice, unless, of course, it was guaranteed to make him a great deal of money; such is the moral trajectory he experiences in George Huang’s enjoyably nasty black comedy.

The plot evolves mainly in flashback, as Guy (Whaley), the archetypal put-upon PA, has taken Buddy hostage at his house, and recalls the sheer torment that Buddy put him through, from humiliating him publicly by yelling abuse at him to stealing his creative ideas for the film ‘Real Life’ by hip young director Foster Kane (sic). The only gem of hope in Guy’s life is his relationship with big-shot producer Dawn (Forbes), which seems to be genuine and heartfelt. But what, exactly, is going on with her and Buddy, and why does the film start out with Guy standing by a stretcher?

Huang’s greatest achievement here is to mix two types of film fairly seamlessly. The first is the Hollywood comedy, with some fairly scathing jokes about artistic bankruptcy and sycophantic dependency mixed with some fine observations about life under a tyrannical boss; some of the dialogue verges on the brilliant, especially Buddy’s ultra-arrogant description of the only meeting worth going to as ‘one that can’t start without you.’ The only part of this plotline that doesn’t ring entirely true is Dawn’s interest in Guy; as played by Whaley, he simply isn’t charismatic or handsome enough to be entirely convincing as the kind of man who would sweep someone who is, presumably, a major Hollywood player off her feet. There’s also a nice cameo from a pre-stardom Benicio del Toro as the previous occupant of Guy’s job, a man now bound for success as the Vice-President of Paramount.

The second plotline is altogether different, feeling closer to Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth or Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, as a demented Guy starts to torture Buddy out of sheer loathing for what he has become after a year fetching and carrying. However, Buddy has a couple of tricks up his sleeve, including a piece of unexpected character background that deepens him, while feeling slightly contrived at the same time, leading to a surprising final confrontation and a suitably bitter twist at the end. It’d be overstating it to say that the two plots don’t entirely match, but it’s as if Huang wrote them at entirely different times, with different characters, and then adapted them into one film; thus, Buddy, the boss from hell, becomes an almost sympathetic figure, while Guy, the erstwhile ‘hero’ of the film, becomes loathsome. This is certainly an interesting strategy, but it also leaves the film with a moral vacuum; no character is especially likeable, so the overall effect is one of distance from these people.

Spacey is magnificent, as usual, managing to bring odd little moments of humanity to Buddy throughout, even if his eventual move into Machiavellian scheming feels closer to Keyser Soze or John Doe than the grotesque yelling of Buddy; a lesser actor would also have been unable to pull off the moment where Buddy is revealed to be human after all, but Spacey does so perfectly. Inevitably, Whaley is overshadowed by the sheer grandeur of his performance, but is fine as the shifty, ambitious Guy (apparently based on the director, albeit modified somewhat!) Forbes is OK as Dawn, in a rather underwritten part, and the rest of the small cast are all fine. Overall, then, this is an entertaining little film with a superb star performance and some fantastic scenes that will remind you why, exactly, bosses were put upon the earth to try and torment us all.

The Picture

The film has a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. To be fair, this makes little difference; the film is hardly the most visually demanding ever made, and the source print used is largely blemish-free, meaning that the overall effect is perfectly satisfactory, if lacking the clarity that enhancement would undoubtedly have brought.

The Sound

A stereo mix is provided, which is unfortunately rather badly out of lip sync with the actors. This can partly be ascribed to the low-budget style of filmmaking, in which audio fidelity is inevitably likely to be less good than on a $100 million blockbuster, but it’s still an irritation to see an actor’s lips move slightly behind the dialogue. Otherwise, the soundtrack is OK, with dialogue and music clear enough.

The Extras

A commentary track by Huang is provided, which is excellent; he based the film on his own experiences of working at Lucasfilm, among other places, and gleefully dishes the dirt on the foibles of his various employers, all the while regretting that he didn’t take the drastic action that Guy, his alter-ego, did. He also does a good job of explaining the ending, which is left rather ambiguous otherwise. The other extras are a trailer, which makes the film look more comic than it actually is, and an odd little ‘Kevin Spacey profile’, which may sound like a few pages of text but is actually a 10-minute documentary about him; despite the appalling editing, which has no consistency or apparent structure, it throws up a few interesting snippets, although nothing dedicated Spacey fans were unlikely to know before.


A nasty, but fun, little black comedy is presented on a technically slightly sub-par disc, but one redeemed by an excellent director’s commentary. Certainly not as scathing an office comedy as The Apartment or even Office Space, this is still well worth watching, if only for yet another superb performance from Kevin Spacey.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 18:06:25

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