Swimming with Sharks is a cold and uncaring movie. It's sarcastic, abusive, aggressive, and pretty darn bleak. Throw in some deep black comedy and an earth-shatteringly evil performance by master-bastard Kevin Spacey, and you're looking that a movie that I've really grown to admire. And I know I'm not alone in that opinion.
Spacey stars as Buddy Ackerman, a high-ranking production executive at Keystone Pictures. Frank Whaley plays "Guy," a young man who has the extreme misfortune of becoming Buddy's newest assistant. (Buddy's former assistant is played, via a brilliant extended cameo, by Benicio Del Toro.) Now ... to say that Buddy Ackerman is the world's worst boss is like saying that molten lava is a mildly unpleasant material to wade through. Ackerman's abusive, demeaning, cold-hearted and cruel -- and damn if he doesn't make for one entertaining bastard to visit with!
Young, innocent Guy must put up with all of Buddy's ceaseless abuse because, hell, he's just getting his start in the world of Hollywood show biz! There are hundreds of unemployed USC grads who'd slap six grandmothers to be the assistant to uber-producer Buddy Ackerman!
So Guy suffers in relative silence, intent on getting his work done while bowing to Buddy's every whim, wish, and tantrum. But when a pretty lady producer drops a "hot property" onto Guy's desk, things start looking up for the beleaguered and abused assistant. Or maybe not. With a hateful jerk like Buddy Ackerman as your boss, you can never let your guard down.
Written and directed by a man who once spent nearly a decade as Guy, Swimming with Sharks pretty much reeks of real-life experience. (Aside from the last five minutes, that is.) Spacey's Buddy Ackerman is simply too amazing of a jerk to be a fictional construct. Create this character from scratch and he'd come off as cartoonishly evil. But just when you think Buddy is a one-note villain of the most despicable kind, you start to see a few cracks in the facade. Or maybe not.
One of the true joys of Spacey's performance here is seeing the method to Buddy's madness. Yes, it's a whole lot of great, vulgar fun to see Buddy perpetually mock and harangue his mild-mannered assistant, but there's also a subtle undercurrent of intent ... as if Buddy really does care about Guy and is just trying to toughen him up for life in the Hollywood trenches. But, again, maybe not. This is not a movie that paints in simple shades of black and white.
Regardless of the reasons behind his cruelty, Buddy ultimately goes way too far and forces Guy to snap under the pressure. As Swimming with Sharks opens, Guy is taking Buddy hostage inside his own palatial estate; the film flips back and forth between Guy's gradual introduction to the movie biz and the merciless revenge he chooses to take on his professional tormentor.
For a comedy, it's pretty darn bleak. And I for one happen to think that's a very good thing. Swimming with Sharks feels like real-life angst and well-earned frustration as poured out into screenplay form. And while the proceedings might prove to be a bit too harsh for the average movie-watcher, it's the hardcore movie geeks who've made Swimming with Sharks a bona-fide cult classic -- partially because it's a trenchant and unflinching peek behind the Hollywood curtain, but mainly because it's a story we can all relate to.
I mean, who hasn't had one of those amazingly jerk-faced workplace superiors that we'd just love to tie to a chair and torture with paper cuts? We all have, and those who suffer in silence can live vicariously through a movie like Swimming with Sharks. It's darkly hilarious, smoothly entertaining, and almost sinfully cruel. And the finalé packs a real stinger.
Video: It's a more than solid widescreen anamorphic transfer, which I'm fairly certain is a marked improvement over the previous DVD release. (Sorry about the vague comparison; it's been a few years since I've seen that old copy.)
Audio: Choose between Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS, or 2.0. Lord knows why such a dialogue-heavy movie would warrant a DTS track, but it's an audio format that does have its fans, so it's a welcome inclusion all the same. Regardless of which audio track you choose, expect to hear Spacey's bombastic bellowings in fine aural form. Optional subtitles are available, albeit only en espanol.
Previously released by Trimark in a bare-bones-ish affair, Swimming with Sharks now hits the shelves in a full-bore and supplement-laden Special Edition.
Actually, the DVD case calls it the "This is a Special Edition You Schmuck" edition, which I think is considerably more amusing.
First up are a trio of audio commentaries: one with writer/director George Huang*, one with leading man Kevin Spacey, and the third with Mr. Huang and co-star Frank Whaley. Between the three commentaries you'll get all sorts of insight into the filmmaking process, the characters, the real-life stories behind the madness, and endless amounts of Shark bites. Some may wonder why Mr. Huang needed to record a solo commentary when the one with he and Mr. Whaley is perfectly entertaining and insightful ... but hey, it's an extra commentary track, and it's one of the best that I've heard in quite some time. All things considered, it's not like the fans of the flick are going to mind a little repeated material!
[*Mr. Huang's solo commentary track was originally recorded in 2000 for the R2 DVD release, and it's an amazingly exhaustive and informative track indeed.
Easter Egg Alert: Click left from the "Shark Tales" prompt and you'll find some old video footage of George Huang from when he was still working as an assistant to producer Barry Josephson. What's even cooler than this little treat is that it was shot by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez -and- Mr. Rodriguez even provides audio commentary to the footage! And as the cherry-on-top, click enter on your remote during this hidden featurette and you'll be treated to a piece of artwork that's quite hilarious. Yes, it's an easter egg hidden inside an easter egg. Neat!]
And the Sharks fans will also love the amusing menu scenes, the slick slipcase packaging, and this trio of Sharks-related featurettes:
Back to the Tank: Swimming 10 Years Later is a 24-minute retrospective piece that features contributions from George Huang, producer Barry Josephson, executive producers Stephen Israel & Jay Cohen, and actors Frank Whaley, Jerry Levine & Michelle Forbes as they share the war stories from conception to production to distribution to release. Overall a rather excellent featurette, I must say.
Shark Tales: Life as a Hollywood Assistant runs 9 minutes and features some rather hilariously unbelievable anecdotes from several former assistants. Funny stuff, both the stories and the featurette's clever approach to the material.
Let's Do Lunch! A Conversation with Colleagues is a 6.5-minute round-table discussion between Mr. Huang and several former Hollywood slaves: Swimming with Sharks producer Joanne Moore, current assistant Marnie Witten, actor Frank Whaley, former assistant turned Paycheck producer Michael Hackett, and former assistant turned The Negotiator producer Albert Beveridge sit around and swap some vague yet satisfying stories from the Hollywood trenches. But with this many participants, why is this illuminating featurette so darn short?
Also included are a collection of seven deleted scenes (viewable with optional audio commentary by George Huang), the original Swimming with Sharks theatrical trailer and a full-frame trailer gallery that highlights Spacey's own Beyond the Sea, the rather impressive American Psycho: Killer Collector's Edition, Roger Avary's sadly-underrated The Rules of Attraction, the also Spacey-centric The Big Kahuna, the seriously creepy High Tension, and Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects.
So few movies choose to revel in true black comedy, and even fewer are able to pull it off as well as Swimming with Sharks does. If all you remember of this film is Kevin Spacey screaming his head off, you owe it to yourself to give the flick a second spin. And considering that Lions Gate & Blink Digital have re-packaged such an excellent little movie with such an impressive array of supplemental material, I've no problem whatsoever in awarding this package our golden seal of approval: DVD Talk Collector Series all the way. And the thing costs less than 15 bucks. Have a ball, Sharks fans!