Ever heard of this movie?
Me neither, until a few weeks ago.
It’s available for instant streaming via Netflix, and is easily worth ninety-three minutes of your time.
Swimming with Sharks is fantastic.
It has its shortcomings don’t get me wrong.
But between the high quality story and a spectacular piece of acting from Kevin Spacey, there are enough laughs to outweigh the unsettling plot.
George Huang wrote and directed Swimming with Sharks in 1994 and it’s the only major motion picture in his filmography. Perhaps it was his passion project?
It’s the classic story of a young man taking a job as an assistant to a big Hollywood agent, in order to get ahead in life. One thing it really hammers home is that a year can be way longer than first it seems.
You gotta love a young Benicio Del Toro performance, with that dour accent of an unknown nationality, like Fez in The Usual Suspects. Benny of the Bull plays a quietly excellent character as Rex, or the man who Guy, played by Frank Whaley, will replace answering calls at the desk.
Speaking of Whaley, here’s one of two shortcomings.
His performance is ultimately the least impressive part of this movie. And as the protagonist, that’s not the greatest sign.
I’m not saying Whaley’s acting is bad, but it’s unconvincing. He can’t keep pace with the whirlwind plot, and the coolness of Spacey.
The other major detractor is of less consequence, but it’s a noticeable weakness nonetheless. The scenery, settings and backdrops often leave much to be desired. They’re not incomplete or shabby; the surroundings of the characters are just very bland.
Perhaps this is a stylistic choice that somehow adds to the movie. Personally I think the budget wasn’t very high (IMDb estimates it around $700,000) and this doesn’t allow for tons of prep previous to shooting.
At the same time, the movie doesn’t need elaborate backdrops or an overwhelming amount of sensory detail. There’s enough already packed in.
More on that later.
On a final note regarding casting, Michelle Forbes as Dawn Lockard is just spectacular. Her character is compelling, strong and nuanced. The scenes in which she interacts with Guy are gripping and covered in subtlety.
Forbes played roles in lesser-known features, such as Escape from L.A. and Kalifornia. Recently she’s much more prominent in television and her work includes a significant role as Maryann Forrester Maryann in the second season of HBO’s True Blood. So noteworthy is her performance it’s deserving of a sidebar. Skip the following bracketed paragraph if you couldn’t care less.
[Sidebar: True Blood is no longer a good television show. It may never have been ‘great’ as an overall televised product, but the first two seasons had fabulous story arcs. It went off the rails because of the ever-expanding world building, and the perseverance of a character named Terra. The entire second season is carried by the introduction of the new antagonist, Maryann Forrester Maryann, and a large hunk of the show’s success is due to the thoroughly riveting and convincing performance from Michelle Forbes.]
Here’s a smart exchange.
When they first have a drink and discuss business, Dawn asks Guy if he’d like to go out. He orders a glass of white wine and she orders a cocktail. While they talk, she chews on the ice from her drink and smokes.
Huang draws a dichotomy here between the typical male and female roles in social and romantic interactions. I think Guy’s shorter than Dawn too, so they’re really an odd pair.
Nuanced scenes like this resonate throughout the entire film.
When Buddy and Guy are conversing, pay close attention to the physical positioning of Spacey’s body. At one point, his shoes are propped on the desk and uncrossed, displaying his crotch like a woman giving birth. This posture illustrates the relative difference in power between the two men and Buddy’s attitude toward his assistant.
So if you haven’t seen Swimming with Sharks, now’s the time, before the scenery and settings begin to feel any older. Stop reading here if you’re sensitive to spoilers.
Anyway, a final few things are worthy of discussion.
First of all, the wind-up toys on Buddy’s desk, and the discussion of ‘Equal’ versus ‘Sweet-N-Low’ artificial sweeteners. The symbolism in these details are too numerous to note; some of which I can’t wrap my head around either. Aside from the lack of ‘artificial sweetener’ present in Buddy’s rhetoric, I’m assuming there’s value to the color of the packets (blue and pink, reminiscent of early-life gender roles) but can’t complete the analytic connection without further research.
In retrospect, the existence of the toys throughout the earlier portion of the movie seems off. As the narrative unfolds, the mechanisms don’t draw our attention, but it’s odd to think a man with such a business-oriented lifestyle would adorn his workspace with playthings.
The resolution is built around a technological quirk of a distinct age in history. Only in the ‘90s could a conflict revolve around the oddities of call waiting and conferencing. But hey, it works.
The ending is a bit confounding in its value. It’s an original twist and the correct way to wrap up the story. But quite a bit gets lost in, what seems like, a rushed conclusion.
It’s not hurried; it’s just a drastic and almost unprecedented turn for the story to take. The viewer is never convinced Guy’s passion for the business outweighs his love of Dawn.
And I hate to harp on this, but it goes back to Whaley’s acting ability. When he shows up at Buddy’s house and threatens him at gunpoint, the seriousness of his intent doesn’t feel real. Further, the torture scenes aren’t genuine because we don’t see the capability for this level of aggression in Guy’s behavior.
But this is a buncha hooey and applesauce.
All things considered, Swimming with Sharks is a classic that shouldn’t be forgotten!