This movie has been on my radar for a while now, ever since I read the Robert Rodriguez book, REBEL WITHOUT A CREW, which used to be my bible when I was seventeen, before I realised it doesn't matter how cheap or fast you can make a film, if it's THE ADVENTURES OF SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL you probably shouldn't be making it anyway. Anyway, Rodriguez apparently "motivated" director George Huang, then working as an assistant at Columbia Pictures, to make a film based on his experiences there, in particular, rumour has it, his time spent working for producer Joel Silver, upon whom Kevin Spacey's character, Buddy Ackerman, is based. Ackerman is a wonderful creation - a sadistic, manipulative, unpredictable, dangerous man whose presence on screen is both repellant and compelling, played pitch-perfectly by Spacey. And the movie falls apart every time he leaves the frame.
Our hero is Buddy's new assistant, Guy (Frank Whaley AKA Brad from PULP FICTION). To see him start from his first day on the job and slowly learn to what extent his new boss is a nutcase is a great idea. Unfortunately, it's my idea, not Huang's. Huang's idea was to use non-linear narrative and it serves to undermine the tension in the film. We begin with Guy one year into his employment, already hardened and jaded by his tenure with Buddy, who keeps paging him as he drinks with other assistants, all of whom look up to Guy, as the top assistant on the pile. Guy excuses himself to make a call to Buddy, who berates him over the phone as Guy makes excuses and apologises profusely.
The very next scene, we see Buddy for the first time, on the phone in his living room, leaving an irate message on Guy's voicemail. Then suddenly Guy enters, gun in hand and takes Buddy hostage, ranting about how Buddy has made his life such hell, now he's going to do the same to him. CUT TO a card which reads "Day One" - Guy's first day as Buddy's assistant and where the movie should have started, in this reviewer's humble opinion.
Even had Huang made this a linear story, it probably still wouldn't have made a four star movie. The film's biggest problem is Frank Whaley, who as a thespian, just isn't in the same league as Spacey. This is fine when Spacey is screaming, belittling and physically abusing Guy, and all Guy has to do is bow and scrape. Not so fine when the tables are turned, the status shifts and Guy has to intimidate Buddy. I just don't buy it.
Nor do I buy Michelle Forbes, as producer on-the-rise Dawn, being interested in spineless, whiney Guy. When she asks him out for the first time, he reluctantly declines; Buddy won't let him take lunch breaks. And still she pursues him! And she's hot! I always remember Forbes as David Duchovny's girlfriend in KALIFORNIA. She's really got the harder-than-granite girlfriend thing down, as I recall she pretty much emasculated Mulder in that movie. But then, like Whaley, Duchovny's no acting powerhouse, so maybe she's just a good actor. If given the chance to recast, I'd keep her and Spacey. It's Whaley who's the weak link here.
The movie also insists on having a twist ending that, because Huang doesn't show it, we have to have explained to us by Mr Exposition: (MASSIVE SPOILER) "Are you kidding? His jaded girlfriend bursts into his apartment, beats and tortures him and you save his life by blowing her away? You're a hero!" If Huang had just shown us what happened, it still would have been a surprise, we just would have gotten the surprise two minutes earlier and lost thirty seconds of mind-numbing dialogue.
This movie is just begging for a fan edit. If it was reassembled in linear order and had the ending recut so that we saw what happened instead of being told what happened, the movie might be worth an extra star (okay, an extra half a star, let's not go nuts). Still, if you want to get it out, it might make a good addition to a Kevin Spacey DVD night. Might I recommend GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, LA CONFIDENTIAL and K-PAX (so SWIMMING WITH SHARKS doesn't suffer too much by comparison).
Two complete Death Stars and one partially-rebuilt Death Star out of Five.