There may be a touch of the pantomime villain about Buddy Ackerman, the monstrous and vain Hollywood studio exec played by Kevin Spacey in Swimming With Sharks, but that doesn’t preclude the character from regularly appearing in those long clickbait lists with titles like ‘100 evil movie bastards’ or ‘The 5,000 most disagreeable wankers of all time’. Weirdly, though, the film itself isn’t widely-known; despite the fact it features Spacey and a young Benecio Del Toro (in what is admittedly a ropey supporting performance), few people have heard of Swimming With Sharks and it’s even harder to find people that have actually seen it.
Ackerman is a high ranking movie mogul and a first class prick, allegedly either based on real-life producers Scott Rudin or Joel Silver, depending on who you want to believe. When he isn’t manipulating his colleagues in order to get what he wants (which is usually either women in bed or the green light for movies that contain lots of loud explosions), he’s either humiliating his junior staff by publicly berating them or physically abusing them by launching objects at their heads. He is one of the great comic creations of the 1990s, a vicious, abhorrent man drunk on his own power, exploiting his lofty position in an industry that apparently ignores the usual ethical requirements of modern employment law. Spitting furious insults one minute, sneakily taking credit for the work of others the next, Ackerman is as cruel and as devious as they come. The role was made for Spacey.
The actor has drawn on his experience of bringing Buddy to life on numerous occasions since. There are signs of Ackerman’s withering sarcasm in Verbal Kint, Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects, which was made around the same time. His arrogance can also be detected in Lex Luthor, from 2006’s Superman Returns, and the total lack of empathy was also evident in 2009’s Moon, in which Spacey coldly voiced the space station’s on-board computer Gerty. His relentless self-interest and cutthroat nature is manifest today in Frank Underwood, the anti-hero of House Of Cards, and – most obviously of all – Buddy was pretty much resurrected note-for-note in Horrible Bosses. Outside of Spacey’s own work the nearest comparison to Buddy Ackerman would probably be Jeremy Piven’s formidable agent Ari Gold, who brightened up eight whole series of Entourage with his ranting and scheming, although Ari is a much more sympathetic figure.
Swimming With Sharks is more than just 90 minutes of The Buddy Show, but Spacey does dominate the film, necessarily chewing the scenery and stealing every scene he appears in (which, admittedly, is most of them). The target for much of his bullying is his new assistant Guy (Frank Whaley), who arrives in the job holding naive pre-conceived ideas about working in Hollywood, which turn out to be wildly inaccurate. Initially filled with hope for the future, Guy is swiftly and unceremoniously brought back down to earth, but his hardened predecessor Rex (Del Toro) explains that the position has a good lineage and that Guy – an aspiring screenwriter – can expect to go places if he ‘protects [Buddy’s] interests and serves his needs’.
The trouble is those interests are nigh on impossible for an underling to protect and his needs cannot ever be fully served. On day one Buddy tears into Guy for giving him a Sweet N’ Low sweetener when he asked for an Equal. As Guy’s first year plays out we see that this is no first-day blip, with the sadistic Buddy constantly screaming at Guy in front of people for forgetting to provide him with phone numbers, failing to put important callers through (even when he specifically asks not to be disturbed beforehand) and a host of other minor transgressions and mistakes. Buddy tortures Guy in the office, forcing him to sit still for his own amusement when the assistant complains that he is desperate for the toilet, and he makes unreasonable demands that constantly interrupt Guy’s weekends (in one scene Guy is forced to seek out and buy every copy of Variety in Los Angeles to get rid of an article that portrays his boss in an unflattering way; not only does Guy do this, he also has to physically tear up every single page, resulting in dozens of paper cuts). The assistant’s endearing idealism is rapidly dismantled and the lack of work-life balance also has a detrimental effect on his burgeoning relationship with Dawn (Michelle Forbes), an ambitious producer who may or may not be playing her own game.
We know from the very beginning where all of this is going. Following a brief prologue the film begins with Guy, apparently driven beyond the point of no return, breaking into Buddy’s house to seek revenge for all the paper cuts, payback for all the insults and some kind of compensation for all those lost hours. Buddy is tied to a chair and beaten, and Guy’s first year in the job is subsequently played out in flashback, offering some explanation as to why he has flipped to such an extent (though when Guy angrily complains that he has put up with Buddy’s shit for too long Buddy snaps back that he suffered it himself for ten years from someone else).
The simple plot, low number of characters and reliance on just a few locations suggest that writer-director George Huang had the theatre partly (if not totally) in mind when he penned the story, and it’s no surprise that Swimming With Sharks has since been re-made on stage in several cities around the world, most notably in London where Christian Slater took on the Buddy role. Like James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross – which also starred Spacey – there’s a reliance on the cadence of language rather than any visual poetry; as such it’s one of those endlessly quotable films, memorable for what you hear rather than what you see. The dialogue is snappy and sharp for the most part, the rat-a-tat barking of insults holding your attention while the backdrops of nondescript studio office spaces and bland restaurant interiors appear in view.
Spacey’s performance is terrific fun to watch, and at times it’s hard not to guiltily laugh along as Buddy insults poor old Guy for the umpteenth time, but the actor shows his range by convincingly tapping into the film’s dark undercurrent when required. Tellingly, the best scene in Swimming With Sharks isn’t one of the many in which Buddy serves up a volley of abuse, but a vital serious moment where the horrible boss reveals an explanation for his actions and some long-standing, well-hidden inner torment. Even if the ‘hey, every monster has a human side’ development is a little predictable, it’s impossible to ignore Spacey’s talent as he tells the story of his wife’s rape and murder years before. Whaley, on the other hand, is unable to match such high standards but he does manage to draw out the necessary empathy required for his character with plenty of stammering and hurt-puppy eyes. His is a fair performance overall.
Huang’s film isn’t quite good enough to be seen as a lost classic, but it’s still an interesting curio that’s worth checking out if you’ve never seen it. It certainly deserves a wider audience than the one it got at the time of release, and given Hollywood’s love for films about Hollywood it’s surprising that this didn’t receive a bigger push; perhaps it was difficult to sell, or perhaps a few too many feathers were ruffled by its satirical sideswipes at the business of show. Swimming With Sharks was given a trailer that made it look like a straight-up comedy, which led to confusion on the part of some reviewers and, presumably, quite a few of the cinemagoers who actually bothered to check it out; the 1990s were littered with dark comedies that studios struggled to market successfully – the handling of The Cable Guy, for example, was just as poor. In the end Swimming With Sharks only made $380,000 at the box office, barely half of the movie’s budget, but that’s a false indication of its merits: the blackly-comic tone is well-pitched and in Buddy Ackerman Huang and Spacey created one of the best tyrannical bad guys of the decade.
Directed by: George Huang
Written by: George Huang
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Frank Whaley, Michelle Forbes, Benecio Del Toro
Running Time: 89 minutes