Much like Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” George Huang’s “Swimming with Sharks” is something of a cautionary tale, a warning about how marking time at a pointless, demeaning job strangles the soul. But Huang, with his bleak view of humanity, has no interest in delighting us with jokes about tempermental fax machines. No, his meaning here, in this shockingly violent black comedy, is to show how constant humiliation can motivate a man to do just about anything … and how “anything,” in the movie business, leads to bigger, better opportunities. “Between Heaven and Hell there’s always Hollywood” and all that.
Guy (Frank Whaley) does not belong in Hollywood. He’s navigating foreign territory with no map and no compass and probably no pocketknife, either. Guy’s the kind of shy, hard-working, fresh-out-of-film-school man who’d name “It’s a Wonderful Life” as his favorite film. Movie mogul Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey divinely playing, well, Kevin Spacey) senses that about his new assistant and proceeds to eat Guy alive. And Buddy covers all the spirit-breaking bases, from unrelenting verbal abuse (“If you were in my toilet, I wouldn’t bother flushing it” he spits at Guy) to menial grunt work and pointless errands. Buddy’s no mentor, though he does, on occasion, offer Guy helpful advice like “Punching below the belt is not only all right, it’s rewarded.” The fact Guy doesn’t quit says more about his impressive ability to swallow rage than some great inner drive for success. This makes him more dangerous than Buddy, who screams at everyone but leaves his work at work. Nice men like Guy never quite seem able to do that.
At this point Huang takes a turn that — well, let’s just agree to call it “unexpected.” Or perhaps “expectedly unexpected” is more accurate. Being a human, Guy doesn’t have limitless space to store his anger, and so one day he confronts Buddy at home, where he knows his boss is most vulnerable. Details of this meeting are best kept on lockdown, but there are scenes — particularly one involving paper cuts, table salt and hot sauce — so stomach-churning they prove impossible to unsee. (Your brain will store it in the same vault as the “Stuck in the Middle with You” sequence from “Reservoir Dogs.”) And since “Swimming with Sharks” has a certain kind of momentum, there is a showdown, but one that makes us sense the director has no intention of air-planing a spoon in our mouths. Bravo for that.
But wait. All this makes “Swimming with Sharks” sound like a 101-minute gleeful festival of torture and sadness. That’s not true. The torture only takes up about 90 minutes. Still, Huang’s pitch-black movie falls squarely into the “cringe with laughter” category. It’s tense and brutal and exhausting, the kind of film that wears down your resistance to relishing Guy’s, then Buddy’s, abuse. It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing: the physical violence (there’s plenty) or astonishing but comical insults like “You’re happy. I hate that.” Only Spacey could deliver a line like that. It was meant for his lips only.
And how about that Spacey? He plays the same character over and over, but he does it so well I never notice or care. He’s the only actor who could play Buddy, the only one who could find the right notes of viciousness, sarcasm and bitterness. He shreds the scenery all to hell, alright, but Spacey’s having so much fun you don’t want to plug up your ears and eyes. Don’t go thinking that’s all Spacey’s got up his sleeve, though. Observe subtle demeanor changes as Guy breaks down that ruthless bravado. Buddy’s got a story and he’s got his reasons, but Spacey is too smart to go for melodrama or easy answers. Whaley, the kind of no-name talent just right to play Guy, is no slouch, either. When he finally explodes, the fallout is impressive. What’s better is the way Whaley disturbs us in the quiet moments, makes us feel the sting of life defined by constant and unrelenting humiliation. He may be weak, but anger’s a powerful motivator. Watching him spar with Spacey is a treat, and it’s what makes “Swimming with Sharks” a gripping and bizarrely entertaining character study.