Swimming with Sharks (1994)

I’m an absolute sucker for a certain type of packaging. My own personal lingo (to differentiate between different varieties) leaves me with the term “slipsleeve.” A number of people know how obsessive I am about these silly things (usually a slip of glossy or matted cardboard that replicates the cover art), but a certain type is something I endlessly pursue. This type is actually not cardboard or paper at all–it’s transparent plastic with an image screen printed onto it that in some way modifies the existing cover art. It’s utterly ridiculous, totally unnecessary and probably expensive to produce. However, I can’t resist the stupid things. I bought Fargo years ago because I saw one of the few remaining copies that had one of these (and subsequently traded it away when disappointed for another film that also had one, though that was coincidence, I’m not interested just in these sleeves) and snatched it up. I’m still regretting my trade and hoping to stumble across another “sleeved” copy of it (and currently refusing to open my newer copy because it doesn’t have one, just in case). Why the hell am I talking about this? Because Swimming with Sharks was released with one, once it was released as the This Is a Special Edition You Schmuck edition. I picked it up when it was released knowing nothing about it, only intrigued by the cover and Kevin Spacey. I forgot about it for a while, found out it was cheap in a few places and tracked it down. And now here I am.

Guy (Frank Whaley) is Hollywood producer Buddy Ackerman’s (Spacey) assistant. His predecessor is Rex (Benicio Del Toro), who tries to tell Guy how things are, but Guy is thoroughly naïve and does not quite get it. It’s not long before the appearance of Buddy clarifies things for Guy, immediately excoriating him for mixing up Sweet ‘n’ Low and Equal, condescendingly pointing out the difference in the packing colouration. Guy’s life is quickly swallowed by the abusive Buddy, who sends Guy out to destroy every single copy of Time magazine in town that has a negative article about him. He throws coffee at him when it is too cold, calls him brainless, stupid, worthless and generally abuses him verbally without flinching. The cowering Guy attempts repeatedly to let it roll off his back or learn from it, not seeming to realize that this is not all building toward a release, but a continuing pattern. Dawn (Michelle Forbes), another producer (though more of independent or art films) wanders in to sell a project to Buddy and is taken with Guy. Guy is taken with her as well, but loses most time intended to be spent with her to picking up Buddy’s sunglasses from a desk to hand them to him two feet away (OK, I made that one up, but close enough). Dawn is frustrated with his spineless subservience to Buddy, and Guy can’t quite figure out how to balance the two, until he finally snaps and takes Buddy hostage and begins to torture him for all the abuse he’s suffered.

The folks I watched this with were left questioning why I had understood this to be a comedy (which is what everyone told me and of course the back has quotes like “Hysterical!” though The Good Girl easily reminds me how wrong these can be any time I think I can rely on the back for genre) as it gets very, to quote the general sentiment, “intense.” Of course, this also quickly descended into an argument about whether the use of the word “mongoloid” by Buddy to describe Guy was racist or not (I still maintain the usage was not, because my general understanding of the current definition and connotation has nothing to do with its race-based origins, except in etymological terms). Still, this is a legitimate response. The intensity vs. humour part, not the “racist?” part. This is a pretty dark film, and I’ve heard “black comedy,” sure, but the dramatic portions (generally the hostage-taking portion) tended more toward just “black” than comedy. Bits would turn out humorously, but largely it was vaguely disturbing.

I have (thankfully) never had a boss like Buddy (and hope I never do) so I cannot attest to any feelings of cameraderie or familiarity when seeing the Buddy/Guy (no, not the blues musician) interactions. I expected, though, something much more over-the-top, and almost felt disappointed sometimes by the abuse (mostly because it was clearly being followed by abduction and torture, which I occasionally thought it really didn’t justify, even emotionally), but that’s merely an indication of the fact that writer/director George Huang was drawing on his own experience, and that of friends, in writing the script, giving it a solid tinge of reality. Eventually, I did find the abuse emotionally justified enough that it didn’t seem repellent, out of character or ludicrously imbalanced. Spacey and Whaley deserve no small credit for this as well, with Spacey perfect as the casually abusive and egocentric tyrant, who never shows an easy turn of weakness and maintains the character even through the torture, while Whaley manages to believably go from stuttering lamb to vicious and angry spirit of vengeance. Forbes has the right edge of jaded familiarity with the Hollywood system to accept that she’s making it in Buddy’s world mixed with the remnant of humanity that makes it acceptable that she would take interest in guy.

It’s Huang’s transition between the elements of humorous abuse to disturbing torture that work best, though. Smooth transitions, all of them, but often jarring emotionally–a good laugh from a ridiculous abuse by Buddy switching rapidly to some form of scream or violence against him that makes the laugh die in your throat. Quite an achievement for a first time writer/director, not one of these ever feels false. Managing them is not an easy feat and usually stumbles or caves to pressure and tries to create a balance of one to the other, usually with a bias toward the positive (or perhaps an artsy balance toward the negative), with one usually winning out for a large portion of the end of the film, but the right balance (not necessarily an actual balance) for this film is kept right until the credits roll.

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