The producer as megalomaniacal cutthroat — the devil with a cellular phone — is, by now, a standard figure of Hollywood satire. But Kevin Spacey takes this archetypal jerk to new levels of tyrannical bravado in the exuberantly nasty Swimming With Sharks. With his oval face and mild, puppyish eyes, Spacey has the look of a rather placid accountant, and that makes his performance as Buddy Ackerman, a smugly sadistic Hollywood executive, all the more shockingly funny. Buddy is a famous action-film producer of the Joel Silver blow-it-all-to-smithereens school. Nothing in his movies, however, is quite as brutal as the way he treats his assistant, Guy (Frank Whaley), an eager young slave whose job it is to take Buddy’s messages, get Buddy’s coffee, secure starlets for Buddy’s midnight couch dates — but mostly to serve as Buddy’s eternally grateful doormat.
For Buddy, who treats even the smallest encounter as a chance to act out his most abusive whims, being a corporate dictator isn’t a matter of caprice. It’s an essential part of show business — indeed, it is show business, a way of theatricalizing the heartlessness that is the successful movie executive’s Darwinian shield. Swimming With Sharks swipes its basic design from Robert Altman’s The Player: It’s yet another black satirical morality play about a yuppie climber who learns to be a killer. But since Guy, for all his ass-kissing resentment, isn’t really filled in as a character, our attention — and, in a curious way, our sympathy — shifts to the monster himself. When Spacey goes ballistic, only to freeze the nitroglycerine in his veins a moment later, you don’t want to look anywhere else. B+