MOVIE REVIEW : Spacey Spices Up ‘Swimming With Sharks’


Hollywood movies about Hollywood are usually disparaged as ingrown, clubby affairs. And yet, from at least as far back as “Sunset Boulevard” to “The Player” and beyond, these movies are a surprisingly resilient breed. Vengeance is their lifeblood.

“Swimming With Sharks,” the latest Tinseltown dig at Tinseltown, is being advertised as a jokey spoof, but it’s something quite different: a dark slice of retribution that recalls Stephen King in his “Misery” mode. It’s about a young, naive Hollywood studio assistant, Guy (Frank Whaley), who turns the tables on Buddy (Kevin Spacey), his imperially abusive boss. Writer-director George Huang, who has worked in various production capacities for Lucasfilms and Joel Silver’s company and Universal and Paramount Pictures, is hunting big game. There’s no affection or giddiness in his take on Hollywood. This movie has ashes in its mouth.

As fascinatingly repellent as it is, “Swimming With Sharks” takes out its Hollywood hatred in ways that seem absurdly overwrought. It’s about how Hollywood shrink-wraps your soul and turns you into a monster like the monsters who have been gnawing on you.


To outsiders, all this rage and gnashing of teeth may seem silly and self-absorbed. Since when is it news that Hollywood corrupts? Huang doesn’t really transcend the narcissism of the genre but Spacey provides one hell of a villain--and what would a Hollywood-bashing be without a great chief meanie?

Spacey’s Buddy--probably modeled on at least one of Huang’s former bosses, though he bears a disconcerting resemblance to Gene Siskel--is a snarly power freak who snaps out his threats with chilly panache. He goes Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now” a few better: He loves the smell of napalm in the morning--and in the afternoon and the evening, too. Buddy isn’t a lovable monster, he’s a black hole of hate, and Spacey fries him to a crisp.

Guy’s humiliation and vengeance might have had more weight if he had more weight. But Guy is a feather-light construction. Even when he’s cuddling up with a development producer (Michelle Forbes) who wants to jump-start her career, he’s minus an emotional force field. He lacks both guile and innocence. He’s a peppy, frightened little cipher, so when his bile starts flowing you don’t know how to take it.

“Swimming With Sharks” could turn into an in-joke wallow for disgruntled Hollywood types but the joke really isn’t all that funny. Huang doesn’t want it to be. In the grand scheme of things his target may be pint-sized but he’s shooting with a bazooka.

* MPAA rating: R, for some scenes of psychological/physical torture and pervasive strong language . Times guidelines: It includes graphic physical abuse .


‘Swimming With Sharks’ Kevin Spacey: Buddy Frank Whaley: Guy Michelle Forbes: Dawn Lockard A TriMark Pictures presentation. Writer-director George Huang. Producer Kevin Reidy. Executive producers Jay Cohen and Stephen Israel. Cinematographer Steven Finestone. Editor Ed Marx. Costumes Kristen Everberg. Production design Veronika Merlin and Cecil Gentry. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. * At the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd. (310) 553-8900; and Sunset-5, Sunset at Crescent Heights, (213)-848-3500.