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Swimming With Sharks (1994)

by on 2011/04/28

“That’s the problem with your MTV, TV dinner generation …you want it now.”

* * *

Swimming with Sharks was written, directed and executed by pure rage. Pure, smoldering rage.

Ok, it was actually written and directed by George Huang. But I bet he was seriously, seriously pissed off at one point.

An office drama that speaks directly to my festering, blackened id, Swimming with Sharks introduces us to striving, earnest Guy (Frank Whaley) who is looking to break into Hollywood. Taking a job as an executive assistant to successful film producer Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), Guy soon discovers that Mr. Ackerman is a toxic boss with a capital OXIC.

Guy’s first cosmic clue that he’s got a hell job to end all hell jobs happens in the first five minutes when he is trained by Benicio Del Toro. Yes, Benicio Del Toro. Del Toro plays Rex, Buddy’s old assistant. And Del Toro does it like he does all of his roles – like he’d gut you if you looked at him sideways.

Personally I’d grab as many free pens and post-it notes as I could, and flee the compound The Hunted-style.

But alas, poor Guy does not flee. He stays, enduring month after month of abuse from the mercurial, unpredictable, certifiable Buddy Ackerman.

Buddy screams. Buddy throws things. Buddy sets unrealistic deadlines. Buddy asks for the impossible. (Case in point: Guy is asked to find every Time Magazine in L.A featuring a negative article that calls Ackerman the “King of Wham Bam.” Then he has Guy tear them up by hand).

Buddy loses important things. Forgets things. Buddy takes credit for Guy’s ideas. Buddy contradicts himself. Lies. Sneers. Manipulates those around him emotionally. Rants, swears. Uses people like a hay fever sufferer uses Kleenex.

And finally, Buddy steals Guy’s girl Dawn, a fellow producer played by the flinty Michelle Forbes.

I served with Anger. I knew Anger. Anger was a friend of mine. I understand this movie at every level that exists in the galaxy. As a member of the ‘dissed’ generation – disillusioned, disenfranchised, disappointed – referred to early and often in this film, I can feel Buddy’s pain. Right now.

Generation X was a generation that had to suspend its adulthood. Crushed beneath student loan debt, or just plain debt, X’ers were late to own homes while the decent-paying jobs were occupied by the glut of self-satisfied Boomers.

I enjoyed – or rather my festering id enjoyed – the turnabout where Guy gathers up the shreds of his dignity, ties Ackerman to a chair and inflicts paper cuts (with a side of lemon) all over Ackerman’s smug face.

Yes, I know, I might have issues. I’m working on it.

Swimming With Sharks isn’t a perfect movie. It really grieves me not be able to give it 4 stars.

  • Problem the first:  Frank Whaley’s Guy isn’t particularly likeable. He’s an empty grin. I couldn’t relate to him, there was nothing redeeming about his personality. No hidden talent, no reserve of strength that makes the climax make sense. No selfless helping of puppies or orphaned babies. Guy has no charisma and he has no spine. “I put too much cream cheese on Buddy’s bagel and he threw it at me. But I learned a very valuable lesson… never put too much cream cheese on Buddy’s bagel.”
  • Problem the second: I could not suspend my disbelief enough to absorb Michelle Forbes as Dawn falling for Guy. They aren’t even the same species. My brain just kept rejecting it. Ensign Ro and Swing Kid dating? No.
  • Problem the final: There were small technical lapses that were a stone in my shoe throughout. Kevin Spacey was acting his leering face off and yet some moments sounded like they were recorded by bad camcorder mic. Mr. Spacey in full sardonic flight deserves better.

Swimming With Sharks is a movie for anyone who has worked in a depressing office for a terrible boss, and lost a little piece of themselves every single day.

Therefore, if you’ve had another bad day at the office, try a double bill of Swimming With Sharks and Office Space. But please don’t end the ‘I Hate My Job’ festival with Swimming With Sharks. You’ll see why.

* * *

101 minutes

Rated R for some scenes of psychological/physical torture involving envelopes, kitchen cleansers and bad haircuts, and pervasive strong language

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