"Unter Haien in Hollywood" (1994): A MOVIE REVIEW
by Dane Youssef
Now here is a movie for those looking for an attack on white-collar corporate office life, the spinning gears of Hollywood. And not overblown with big-budget special effects, scatological humor and saccarine-coated deluded big-screen implausibilities. For those looking for something really strongly written by a veteran of it's field and performed by pure-blooded thespains in the low-budget indie vein.
"Unter Haien in Hollywood" seems to owe more than a little something to "Dilbert." The movie is more about Corporate America than Hollywood. There are a lot of white-collar touches that apply to offices, cublicles and other such rather than the Hollywood spin machine. Like Robert Altman's "The Player," this is one of those thrillers about people in "the biz" who are driven to the breaking point by how cruel L.A. can really be.
The film's writer/director George Huang himself was a former personal assistant to some of the biggest names in Hollywood, has described the movie as "20% autobiographical." Much of this one is said to be based on his experience working for noted mega-mogul producer Joel Silver for Columbia Pictures. So it should come as no surprise what-so-fucking-ever that his first crack at film was his own life story.
Surprise, surprise, huh? Well, more or less.
A critical darling, unseen by most of the world and known mostly for the blistering, superb performance of two-time Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey.
But despite Kevin Spacey being the big name in this movie and him getting first-billing because of it, Frank Whaley ("The Doors" and "Career Opportunities") is the star of this one. Most of anything with him headling is a sign of a bad movie ("Cold Dog Soup" and "The Jimmy Show"), but this is one of those where he shines because he's allowed to. He's not the most versative actor, the best-looking or the most charismatic. He's had a rep as being something of the life-long "bit player." But when he's given a movie, script and part which allows him any headway, he damn well manages to make the most of it.
Spacey, being one of Hollywood's finest and renown, is able to pull off the screaming antagonistic drill-instructor and the restrained, tortured hostage here pitch perfectly. Whaley effectively plays the green and naive wide-eyed rookie to the Hollywood spin machine with his usual perfection, but when the other shoe drops, he doesn't quite pull off the scorned, disgruntled employee seeking revenge.
Whaley's Jeckyll isn't as convincing as his Hyde. He doesn't scare us. He never seems truly unhinged. Maybe that's why Whaley sticks to the youthful deer-in-the-headlights. He's just believable. When it comes to acting, you judge a book by it's cover. Whaley doesn't really seem as demented and unhinged as he should in his captor scenes. He's best as a whipping boy--whcih is why he plays so many.
1994 was the official year for Spacey. He got his breakout with the TV series "Wiseguys," and made the big screen transition with worthwhile fare like his Oscar-winning supporting role in "The Usual Suspects," "The Ref," "Se7en" and this. Spacey monopolized himself in the '94 as "absolute talent" (my term).
Geez, after seeing what a softball he was in "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "The Usual Suspects" who would've guessed the same actor could pull off such a corporate monster?
Well, I guess we all would have. Every time, you see him act, he has that way of letting you know he make you believe in every single role.
Benecio Del Toro, the "Brad Pitt of Mexico" (someone else's quote, believe me, I never dubbed him such) has a quickie cameo as Spacey's assistant who's given his three weeks notice and is on the way out, making way for Guy. But not before giving Whaley some final parting words of wisdom. "Protect his interests, serve his needs. What you think means nothing. What you feel means nothing. You have no brain. He yells all the time. It's a lose-lose situation." This job is a fast-track shortcut to the top and if Guy does right and keeps his mouth open wide enough to catch all of Buddy's sadomasochistic crapola, he may very well be someday on the same mantel as Buddy and his former assistants. Everything Guy'll ever need to know about his job, he learns on day one.
Enter Dawn Locklard (Michelle Forbes of "Guiding Light" and "24"), another powerful Hollywood producer who Guy doesn't have the best first meeting with. She doesn't show a lot of warmth, which explains why she's a producer.
She herself is angry and cycnical, and throughout the course of the film, we will see why. She eventually warms up to Guy and asks him out. Guy is stunned. But she needs Buddy on her side and is interested in him getting behind her new project. Guy sees this as an opporunity. Her new project for the studio, "Real Life"may just be Guy's window of opportunity. She seems to be interested in Guy because he's the most real thing she's seen in the Valley for the longest time. But does she really feel something for him or is she just using him? Is Buddy two-faced and back-stabbing or is Dawn? Guy no longer knows what's real and what's what?
At first, we don't realize Buddy just likes to yell and scream and humiliate no matter what. Well, unless you've seen the trailers. e just likes to rant. You will never again confuse a packet of Sweet 'N' Low with Equal again. You'll never look at sugar packets the same way. This is perhaps the funniest moment in the movie. Although when Guy starts to show some spine after a lot of Buddy's tantrums, the payoff is almost evenly matched with the artifical sugar scene. Buddy gets to emotionally, verbally (and at times, physically) abuses Guy (and apparently all his assistant's) on every possible ocassion. He also gets to skewer just about everyone who crosses his path.
Kevin Spacey's rans are hilarious. We dont know whether to laugh at Spacey or feel bad for Whaley. Often, we don't know if the horrific hostage-stiuation quite works as well as the corporate office scenes.
And Kevin Spacey brings his trademark dry cynicsm and sardonic behavior to what could have been a limited one-dimensional bullying manager. But Spacey plays the character for all it's worth and then some and turns him into a memorable antagonist who is one of the sole reasons this movie has a reputation and cult following.
"Unter Haien in Hollywood" isn't just a featherweight comedy for a slow Saturday night about a bullying boss like the trailer may lead you to believe. It's a non-cronological film which deals with white-collar office comedy and torturous drama. Shifting from a lightweight comedy to a torturous thriller. It's sort of schizophrenic thing. We're laughing heartily one minute and horrified the next. A lot of time, this one keeps us guessing as it criss-crosses from Buddy torturing Guy to vice-versa.
The whole fiim is so reliant on it's writing and acting, it was adapted into a play premiering at London's Vaudeville Theatre in 2007, featuring Christian Slater, Matt Smith and Helen Baxendale. Ys, plays can be adapted into movies and vice-versa. The movie works like the theatre or an actor's workshop, relying mostly on performance and dialouge. Spacey seems to prefer doing this type of work, judging by his resume. It's fun for actor's and it forces them to rely on their own raw talent, letting you know exactly where they stand.
But there's a lot to this movie (maybe too much) about this movie that rings true to life. A lot of moments filled with the harsh insights and disillusioned truths that one learns from living an uncharmed life. And so theres illuminating light and lessons, as well as laughs. Not to mention some great acting from the heavier moments where ugly secrets about Buddy and... well, surprisingly Dawn are revealed.
The plot is over-developed and the ending is more poetic than anything else.
But most of the movie really does does work and really does sticks with you... like all the great ones do.
--Boo-Boo For Corporate Hollywood, Dane Youssef