Kiernan Shipka in 'Swimming With Sharks'
Image via Roku

SXSW Review: ‘Swimming with Sharks’ retrofits a cult classic for contemporary audiences

The original Swimming with Sharks has evolved into a cult classic since its initial release in 1994. Kevin Spacey’s Buddy Ackerman remains the defining element in a much-maligned film that sees this once-revered actor deliver a solid performance. Belittling, berating, and pouring scorn on anyone in spitting distance, Buddy Ackerman came at the beginning of a career run, including A Time to Kill, The Usual Suspects, L.A Confidential and Seven. The movie, featuring a stand-out cameo from Benicio del Toro, an underrated contribution from Michelle Forbes and Frank Whaley on underling duties, remains a classic.

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Shot on a shoestring budget, Swimming with Sharks exploits its indie roots, pitch-black tone, and satirical edge by turning in a moral fable on the effects of absolute power. As a social commentary piece, it effectively undermined the entertainment industry prior to #MeToo, whilst intervening years have seen it gain in notoriety. Neither upbeat, uplifting, nor particular conclusive in its moral standpoint, Swimming with Sharks would therefore seem an odd choice for an adaptation at first glance. That’s is why the pilot of this Roku original is such a surprise, both for its adherence to the original concept and flagrant disregard for contemporary taboos.

Created, written, and co-starring Kathleen Robertson, this updated take makes the first of many smart decisions early on. By swapping gender leads, replacing Buddy Ackerman with Diane Kruger’s Joyce Holt and Kiernan Shipka as the conniving intern and making the central relationship between two women, it immediately changes the dynamic. Increased sexual tension coupled with clinically concise empowerment emasculates Joyce’s male assistants whilst hinting at the indignities she may have suffered on route to the top.

Beyond that central conflict, this series also delivers thirty-minute power plays between these two women as Lou aids and abets Joyce in her misguided need for acknowledgment. Structurally speaking, this updated interpretation works well within the half-hour timeframe, drip-feeding original dialogue alongside some surprising new twists. Finn Jones, formerly Danny Rand from Ironfist, also put in a solid turn as Joyce’s workplace confidant Marty, both protecting a far from innocent Olive and suffering at the hands of his boss.

Elsewhere, Donald Sutherland delivers a pivotal performance as a self-assured elder statesman in the form of studio founder Redmond that is seedy, lascivious, and eerily omnipotent in its construction. On his sickbed and with a nubile young lady in attendance, this seasoned veteran introduces audiences to an aging relic, who comes with all the gender-specific entitlement of old Hollywood. Scenes between Joyce and Redmond are tainted by unwanted memories, solicitous transgressions, and moments of weakness. In opposition to that, Lou morphs into something formidable, scheming, and coercive as she cajoles her way into favor by any means necessary.

In many ways, Roku’s Swimming with Sharks satirizes the entertainment industry as effectively as the original, but times have changed. Although this series adheres to the premise, remains faithfully constructed, and comes with a solid ensemble cast, George Huang’s film was held together by Kevin Spacey. By taking these characters beyond the confines of Fountain Pictures early on, Kathleen Robertson humanizes them too much. Joyce Holt might come across as an ice queen, but audiences are privy to her weaknesses in under an hour, while Sutherland’s aging founder strips away any power on their first encounter.

Ray Dotrice, who played Sutherland’s role in the film, was a more benign presence who featured fleetingly. Similarly, T.E Russell’s Foster Kane only served as a plot device, just as Erika Alexander does in this contemporary reboot. Other minor characters with minimal narrative impact include Ross Butler’s sympathetic Alex and Joyce’s cutthroat personal assistant Travis. The latter of which serves as an impenetrable barrier between Olive and Joyce, but gets extra points for being uber bitchy in the hands of Thomas Dekker.

The chief concern which comes out of these initial half-hour episodes is whether it has enough substance to remain engaging. On the strength of the performances thus far, Kathleen Robertson, Diane Kruger, and Donald Sutherland are having a ball. Being by turns lascivious, scheming, and ice queen clinical; each brings something unique to the table. However, whether that translates into audience figures, adulation, and industry plaudits come April remains to be seen.

Swimming With Sharks premieres on the Roku Channel April 15.

SXSW Review: 'Swimming with Sharks retrofits a cult classic for contemporary audiences'
Kathleen Robertson and company deliver a contemporary take on an indie classic.

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