“The Buddy Factor” will become this year’s must-see primer for aspiring producers and studio execs. Borrowing a page from “The Player” with a tip of the hat to “Reservoir Dogs,” George Huang’s sharp first feature reps the latest diving expedition to attempt to measure the true depths of venality and cynicism in contempo Hollywood. Narrow focus on the relationship between a selfish, macho exec and his green assistant will limit audience interest to in-the-know urbanites, but an aces performance by Kevin Spacey and smart take on industry ways should generate sufficient critical support to give this very dark comedy a shot at solid cult status.
A revenge fantasy in which a much put-upon flunky gets some of his own back when he holds his insufferable boss hostage and tortures him over all “the indignities and hardships” he’s suffered, pic charts a recent Hollywood arrival’s quick trip from idealism to murderous me-firstism.
Hip opening scene has 25-year-old film school grad Guy (Frank Whaley) reeling in disgust when his young dinner mates at a trendy eatery react with utter blankness when he mentions Shelley Winters and her credits. Guy, it would seem, got lucky in town right away, landing a fast-track job as personal assistant to high-powered studio production exec Buddy Ackerman(Spacey), a man known for reveling in power, babes and abuse of his employees.
Not only does Buddy humiliate the naive Guy in front of other workers, throw things at him and make him remove from local newsstands every copy of a Time issue that includes a derogatory mention of him, he even prevents the kid from ever taking lunch, which means Guy must meet foxy young producer Dawn (Michelle Forbes) one evening.
That such a tough cookie as Dawn would immediately make a play for gullible little Guy is the script’s least believable ploy, but she does it mostly to improve her position with Buddy so he’ll move on her new project. Buddy initially responds to the script with an utter lack of enthusiasm, but Guy is eventually able to turn him around, thereby linking his fate in town directly to that of the project and his detested boss.
But in the meantime, Guy must endure an endless cascade of verbal and sometimes physical abuse, and the many scenes of Buddy grinding his peon into the carpet, then digging a hole so he can push him further down, have an insidious, mordant humor that is greatly enhanced by Spacey’s incisive, fundamentally serious performance.
Buddy’s favorite lines are, “Shut up, listen and learn” and, courtesy of John Wayne, “Do not apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.” Spacey never tries to cozy up to the audience to suggest that Buddy’s secretly a nice guy under it all. (Once the film is seen in Hollywood, speculation will ensue as to who inspired the character; Huang once worked as an assistant to Barry Josephson, and such names as Don Simpson, Joel Silver and Scott Rudin have already come up.)
Intercut with the office action are “current” scenes in which an enraged Guy, having tied up Buddy in the latter’s house, forces him to confront his own childish sadism, all the while torturing him and threatening worse. Escalating face-off is climaxed by an unexpected arrival, and surprise ending truly does “The Player” one better in its evaluation of how self-centered, amoral and insular Hollywood may be.
Film’s perspective remains small, as few other characters enter into the fray and Huang devotes nearly all of his energy to keeping the narrative afloat. But within its limited range, pic has verve, a fine control of tone and a stylish look given its low budget and three-week sked. Lensing, production design, editing and music are all excellent.
Most important, the three main roles are well-cast and performed. Spacey dominates, but Whaley makes a convincing transition from goody-goody to icy insider, and Forbes manages well despite being forced to flip-flop on command between sarcastic bitchiness and softer intimacy.
Short of serving up a B.O. bonanza with your first feature, the best way to get Hollywood to know your name is to make a film industryites will talk about, and Huang has craftily done that.