The worst kind of whinge
also showing SWIMMING WITH SHARKS George Huang (15) NADJA Michael Almereyda (15 ) NORTH BY NORTHWEST Alfred Hitchcock (PG)
Thursday 04 April 1996
It's about Guy (Frank Whaley), a film school graduate who's got his foot in the industry door as an assistant to senior executive Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey). Spacey makes mountains of money and ritually humiliates Whaley. It's debatable which one he takes the most satisfaction in. His glee is palpable in some crisply demeaning insults - "My bath mat means more to me than you do," he blurts. Their relationship is warped, but strangely warm. "You could have walked out whenever you wanted," he tells Guy later when the tables have been turned and the slave has bound his master to a chair, inflicting bizarrely appropriate tortures on him (like paper-cuts, the curse of the office junior). It's a classic sado-masochistic relationship, born out by the kink in the climax, which finds Guy revealing an unexpected loyalty to the man who has crushed his spirit.
Swimming with Sharks is the worst kind of whinge, and after 100 minutes of its damned self-righteousness, you know how Guy feels (only it's the snooty writer-director George Huang who should be tied to a chair and tortured). Movie nerds and withered old critics will adore it, because of the scene where Whaley despairs of his pals, who only know Shelley Winters from The Poseidon Adventure. The joke negates itself, and incriminates Huang; doesn't he have a life outside the movies, you wonder?
Clearly not. His characters are ciphers, except for Benicio del Toro, who has a dapper cameo as Whaley's predecessor; and Spacey, who triumphs because he wields sarcasm the way other people wield machetes. Oh, and because he's the finest, most vibrant American actor around. The role isn't worthy of him - he has no room for manoeuvre - but he lends Buddy a complexity that isn't in the screenplay. With his iron will and perishing wit, Spacey always retains the upper hand, even when he's covered in purple sores and tabasco sauce.
The film fails on every technical level, too. No wonder Huang is so miffed at Hollywood - until he brushes up on pacing a picture, and composing and blocking scenes, and sustaining suspense, he'll be lucky not to spend the rest of his days parking cars there. And rightly so - his elitist attitude is contemptible. He establishes a spurious battle between independent cinema and Hollywood, wherein only one can be victorious. That's a terribly naive attitude. Hollywood is perfectly capable of producing masterpieces - ET, say, or The Godfather Part II, or Speed. Equally, the independent sector is not above botch jobs - like a certain Swimming with Sharks, for instance.
But not Nadja, an arch black-and-white comedy about vampires in New York (imagine Dracula re-written by Tama Janowitz). Elina Lowensohn and Jared Harris play vampire twins who get the frighteners put on them when Dr Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) hammers a stake into their father's heart. The writer-director Michael Almereyda treats vampirism the way Terry Gilliam approaches time-travel in the forthcoming Twelve Monkeys: as a metaphor for 20th-century chaos and malaise. It works, too - even at its most metaphysical, it remains dryly funny, and the pixelvision sections (shot on a foggy Fisher Price toy camera) are hallucinatory. Artery-licking good.
Just time to direct you to the pristine new print of the cruel and cunning North by Northwest. Cary Grant gets hounded by a crop-dusting plane ("dustin' where there ain't no crops"), Eva Marie Saint turns lighting a match into an act of thrilling sensuality, and Hitchcock is on his most wicked behaviour.
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