Kevin Spacey is to Swimming With Sharks what Gene Hackman is to The Royal Tenenbaums—a classic, fun character that you can’t take your eyes off who dominates every scene he’s in and lifts an otherwise ordinary movie to a higher level. Of course they’re entertaining in very different ways—Hackman’s character is irresponsible but basically likable; “likable” is one word that would never be used to describe Spacey’s character, a delightfully cruel and sharp-tongued ogre.
I’d also say I enjoyed Swimming With Sharks a bit more than The Royal Tenenbaums, in part because the former is more willing to go with its strength and give you more Spacey instead of getting too bogged down in other characters and subplots as The Royal Tenenbaums does.
The plot of this black comedy is a very simple one. Spacey is a petty tyrant show business executive, who ceaselessly exploits, berates, belittles, humiliates, and abuses his hapless assistant (and pretty much everyone else he can dominate in his little world). It’s the most entertaining depiction of such a dynamic since Alan Brady and Mel Cooley.
The assistant finally blows, shows up with a gun at Spacey’s house, and proceeds to take him hostage and maniacally mistreat him while giving vent to his grievances and demanding an apology.
Though it plays primarily as a comedy, certainly the movie raises thought-provoking issues.
One is the self-perpetuating cycle of violence. Specifically this is one of those hazing situations where people take so much abuse to rise to whatever level they rise to that it turns them into the kind of people who automatically dish out that same abuse to those that follow. The more you get to know the characters, the more you see how their cruelty, coldness, and domineering verbal styles are manifestations of the damage they suffered being on the receiving end of such mistreatment in the past.
Another issue raised is the matter of why anyone puts up with being low man on the totem pole in that situation to begin with, if they have any other options at all. As Spacey accurately says to the assistant, “You could have left any time.” (I certainly would have. That’s why at a certain level films about this kind of moral dilemma don’t speak to me. It’s hard for me to put myself in the characters’ shoes, because I wouldn’t spend five minutes tolerating the things they tolerate to be in a position to face such dilemmas.)
In some cases it’s pure ambition; you endure it because you’re an amoral person who recognizes that doing so is a means to the end of more money, power, sex, etc. In other cases it’s done for a supposedly greater good. You debate how much to sell out, and you rationalize doing immoral, dishonorable, dehumanizing things in the short run because once you get where this will enable you to get, you’ll achieve enough long term good for the world and create enough worthwhile art to outweigh that ugliness. (This latter position is represented by the assistant’s love interest in this film, and by the protagonist in Mistress, another black comedy about show business that I wrote about recently.)
Another issue the film raises is the moral justifiability of revenge. If one human being abuses another to the extent Spacey does his assistant, should we cheer when the assistant gets his payback, or be appalled because “two wrongs don’t make a right”?
Not that it explores these issues in a particularly deep and insightful way, but it does at least as well as the average Hollywood product in its treatment of ethically important psychological matters and life decisions like these.
On the other hand, I suspect some critics would feel it’s dumbed down in having the characters at times give speeches articulating these very points and dilemmas, rather than letting the viewers infer it all for themselves from the action as best they can. I’m OK with that though.
One element I found dissatisfying is when the tied up Spacey character taunts the assistant for his weakness, insisting that this is something you can’t do halfway, that the only way he’s going to take his next step toward the top is by pulling the trigger and finishing him off.
It’s supposed to be the film’s big moment of inner struggle—how far is the assistant willing to go to succeed in this field?—but to me it doesn’t make sense.
I get the metaphorical point, that you have to suppress every last bit of your humanity to make it in a dog-eat-dog corner of the world like this, that you can’t let moral qualms stop you from doing what’s been done to you or worse, that you have to be willing to destroy your boss in order to be able to step over him to a brighter future for yourself.
But making that point this way doesn’t make sense on a literal level. How would the assistant’s murdering Spacey further his career? Leave aside the moral considerations; how would spending your life in prison for first degree murder be a bold, ruthless, unapologetic “grab life by the balls” move that greases your way to being a Hollywood mover and shaker?
The way the ending plays out from there is mildly unsatisfying. We’re told what the protagonist does, but not how he plausibly could have pulled it off. It’s like the movie used up all its ideas on the hostage situation and especially the work relationship that led up to it, and when it came time to provide some kind of resolution it just stuck any old final plot twist on there. Not terrible, but not a strong point of the movie.
Swimming With Sharks has enough else going for it that without Spacey’s wonderful, over-the-top performance it would still be no worse than mediocre. Maybe it would still be worth seeing. But Spacey eliminates the maybe.