Hollywood making movies about Hollywood always runs the risk of being a naval gazing, self indulgent wank. Make it too upbeat, and it’s just rich people bragging about their rich, easy lives. Make it too cynical, and it’s poor little rich people complaining about their easy lives. But despite that risk, I tend to love most Hollywood movies about Hollywood. The key seems to be relentlessly making themselves the butt of the joke. Like the Robert Altman’s darkly hilarious The Player, or David Mamet’s sweetly hilarious State and Main. Or Woody Allen’s goofily hilarious Hollywood Ending. But what happens when a Hollywood movie about Hollywood goes dark and cynical, but doesn’t include the laughs? You get Swimming with Sharks.
Allegedly based on Joel Silver, the real life producer of blockbuster franchises The Matrix, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, Kevin Spacey plays Buddy Ackerman, a high level producer, famous for his ruthless methods and unabated anger. When his personal assistant, Rex (Beniccio Del Toro) leaves for a better job, he’s replaced by Frank Whaley’s Guy, a fresh faced, eager to please newbie.
Bouncing back and forth from present day, where Guy has taken Buddy hostage at gunpoint, to key moments of his time in Buddy’s employ, we get to see how this fresh faced, eager to please newbie has turned into the gun toting nut job in Buddy’s living room. The flash backs also introduce us to Dawn (Michelle Forbes), another producer who works for Buddy. Buddy and Dawn are there to show Guy the good and the evil ways to make it in Hollywood. The only problem is, Swimming With Sharks wants to make sure we know that even the good path is kind of evil, and definitely assured to make you come out second best.
As I said, Swimming With Sharks is all darkness and cynicism, with no relief in the form of even occasional comic relief, so it can be a bit of an assault at times. Spacey is amazing as the perpetually angry and slimey Buddy Ackerman, but he doesn’t get many notes to play. The odd moments of something just a little bit different in his performance really stand out, I just wish there were more of them.
Whaley gets a little more to do as the entire movies is based around his evolution from innocent optimism, to being torn between Buddy and Dawn, to making us know his final decision was always inevitable. It’s Guy’s story and Whaley does a good enough job, the only problem, Spacey dominates his scenes so much, I sort of wished it was Buddy’s story instead.
For a movie supposedly based on a very real, very high profile industry person, it also felt like it was missing a bit of inside dirt. Buddy’s a prick, but it never felt like the character was writer and director George Huang giving Silver, or Hollywood, the finger. Swimming With Sharks is good, but it feels like it’s probably to watered down version of an amazing script that went a lot harder at a lot more Hollywood sacred cows, before being neutered by whichever sacred cow studio gave it the green light.