Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Swimming with Sharks: A Bucket of Cinematic Chum

Swimming with Sharks
US, 1994
Written and Directed by George Huang

Look. Since I've gotten back into writing about the movies I watch, I've been pretty positive towards most of the films I've seen, even when they have disappointed me. In part this is because I don't go out of my way to watch movies I don't expect to like, but it's also of a piece with my operating philosophy towards film criticism. Whatever opinion I might ultimately express, I try to at least describe what a movie does (and how it does it) in impartial terms, such that an interested party might feel free to ignore me and watch anyway if something sounds worth trying. But as for George Huang's Swimming with Sharks, well, I just can't do that. Don't watch this cynical, self-indulgent turkey. Take my word for it.

While Hollywood gets a lot of (potentially well-deserved) stick for being self-congratulatory, it may well deserve even more criticism for all the times it talks shit about itself and the industry that makes it run. Yes. this has been done well in the past (Sunset Boulevard) and even more recently (The Player, State and Main), but most of these movies risk coming across as the bitter ranting of people the system left behind—as is the case here. Swimming with Sharks is the epitome of biting the hand that feeds; in the process, it bites its own audience by making us hate the people who make the films we watch and, by extension, ourselves for watching them in the first place.

In Swimming with Sharks, the simpering Guy (Frank Whaley, an affectless cipher) takes a job as the assistant to powerful film mogul Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey, eating every piece of scenery that's not nailed down). In between putting up with Buddy's constant berating and belittling, Guy pursues a relationship with an ambitious producer (Michelle Forbes, the best thing about the picture), and his efforts to get her noble, youth-oriented film made happen to align with Buddy's own schemes to take charge of the studio. This story is framed by and intercut with scenes from the night Guy finally snaps and takes Buddy hostage, torturing him for all of the wrongs he's done.

But the problem with this discontinuous storytelling, here, is that Guy is barely fleshed out as a character before we see him break bad, and Huang's script never feels the need to make us care about him or his desires. Aside from a short speech about how movies are "memories" for him, Guy never demonstrates what he wants, and the script hangs a lampshade on this by having other characters constantly ask him "What do you really want?" But calling attention to a character's motivational problems is hardly the same as fixing them.

And, speaking of the script, Swimming with Sharks is terribly overwritten. You could say it owes a debt to Reservoir Dogs, both in its digressive opening anecdote and scenes of chair-strapped torture, but that's one debt the film never earns enough capital to repay. I'm not at all surprised it's been turned into a theater piece, where the living energy of the stage might let its purple dialogue carry more heft. On film, all the subtext becomes text, and Huang's flat, unimaginative direction does little to comment on the things he's filming. Everything just sort of blends together into a bland, repetitious, shouty mess. There are only so many times Guy can screw up, only so many times Buddy can overreact and twirl his mustache, before the audience becomes numb. Huang goes so far above and beyond that number, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how films work.

Similarly, we don't need to like or relate to characters in order to care about them. Plenty of films and TV shows give us antiheroes and ambivalent characters that we nonetheless find interesting or engaging in some way. Yet in his determination to show how poisonous and dehumanizing Hollywood can be, Huang makes it impossible to give a damn about just about anyone in the film. Everyone here is a two-faced hypocrite, driven by self-interest and ready with pat, cynical "industry-speak" whenever anyone calls them out on it. Ho-hum. I've heard this tune before.

A lot of this could be forgiven if the film managed to be funny in any way, but its bilious contempt for all of its characters, however minor, strips it of any humor it may have had. Black comedy and cringe humor are fine, but Swimming with Sharks has neither, only a self-important sense of misdirected rage. Every interaction feels like a trope of the "Hollywood is evil" genre, and it's hard to imagine anyone laughing at punchlines they already know by heart. Maybe industry insiders can slap each other on the back and say "Oh, this is so true!" but, to the rest of us, it just seems cruel and unnecessary.

But perhaps the worst thing about the film is the way it clearly sympathizes with Guy's torture of Buddy. Buddy is a terrible person, a cartoonish narcissist and sadist the film tries and fails to humanize way too late in the game. We should want him to fall, but like this? It's hard not to read a certain amount of joy, on Huang's part, into the imaginative techniques Guy invents to cause Buddy pain and humiliation. This brings the whole thing back around to Huang's motivation: if your response to working under an intolerable system is to film and stage a fantasy by which you get to wreak vengeance upon a symbol of that system, it might not just be the industry that's sick.

And because Guy is so poorly-drawn as a character, we never feel that he risks losing anything by doing what he does. There are simply no stakes when the main character is a void. If Huang ever demonstrated that Guy has a soul, for lack of a better word, we might feel it being torn away with each new insult he suffers or torment he inflicts. Instead, we're left to yawn and look at our watches. Hollywood may be a terrible industry filled with phonies and sociopaths, but at least they know how to tell a good story. If Swimming with Sharks is the alternative, I'll take Hollywood any day.

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