Swimming With Sharks

(1995) *** R
101 min. Trimark. Director: George Huang. Cast: Kevin Spacey, Frank Whaley, Michelle Forbes, Benicio Del Toro, Jerry Levine.

Swimming with Sharks brings to mind a host of Hollywood satires which have come before, perhaps especially David Mamet's play Speed-the-Plow in its sick, Tinseltown triangle of self-centered lovers and overall message of the crushing weight of show business. Writer-director George Huang toiled in the production office mines for years, under bosses like big-time producer Joel Silver. This film represents his return salvo for years of bad treatment by assorted whip-crackers (embodied here, in composite form, by Kevin Spacey). But Huang's output since the well-received Swimming with Sharks has been paltry and marginalized. Could it be that Huang has been blacklisted? More likely than not, Huang's talent and inspiration are limited.

Frank Whaley plays Guy, a dreamer hoping to climb Hollywood's corporate ladder by suffering as an assistant to power-players like producer Buddy Ackerman (Spacey, in full-tilt mode). Buddy inflicts relentless physical and, worse, psychological punishment on Guy, who can see only a pinprick of light at the end of his tunnel. To complicate matters, rival producer Dawn Lockard (Michelle Forbes) makes nice with Guy, leaving him to neurotically question her loyalty in a town where favors count more than fidelity. It's not revealing much to say that Guy gets a measure of revenge when it comes to Buddy, making this "comedy" (which certainly borders drama) pitch-black.

Whaley and Forbes are both likeable and stalwart performers, and Huang benefits also from the presence of Benicio Del Toro and Roy Dotrice in peripheral roles. That said, this show belongs to Spacey, whose lacerations are equally effective in comic and dramatic doses. It's a theatrical performance for a theatrical film, but the character (like many of Mamet's virtuoso roles) certainly calls for larger-than-life salesmanship, which Spacey obligingly vomits forth.

Swimming with Sharks plays a bit like a comedy script which stopped seeming very funny on the set. The situations are never less than compelling, the dark tones register, and empathy is certainly forthcoming (for all of the characters, including, miraculously, Buddy), but for all this, Huang lacks the ingenuity to raise this above the obvious level at which it plays. Though Huang's no Billy Wilder, this is a dark ride worth taking at least once.

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