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'Big Kahuna'

Little 'Kahuna': Three actors tackle tough questions in stagy 'Big Kahuna'

Friday, May 19, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

You'll know "The Big Kahuna" began as a stage play by the time Kevin Spacey makes his entrance, takes one look around the premises and utters the equivalent of Bette Davis' immortal "What a dump!"

'Big Kahuna'

RATING: R for language.

STARRING: Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Peter Facinelli.

DIRECTOR: John Swanbeck.


CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars.


The movie starts with Danny DeVito and Peter Facinelli getting to know each other better. Along with Spacey, they're cast as employees of a company that manufactures industrial lubricants. The three men are attending a sales convention in Wichita. Their main mission: to convince a Very Important Prospect to take out a Very Large Contract for their product. Failure, it seems, is not an option.

Bob (Facinelli), a researcher, is young, nervous and newly married. This is his first convention, and he's not sure why he's there. Phil (DeVito) is an old hand from marketing who perhaps has attended too many of these affairs -- he has just been divorced from his wife. Larry (Spacey), another marketer, expresses himself with jarringly blunt cynicism. His critique of the decor of the company's hospitality suite provides a blistering introduction to his razor tongue.

Once we're sure of the setup, we're also certain that the proceedings will seldom if ever stray from this room. We're also sure that dialogue will prove more important than plot, that these three characters each will experience a dark night of the soul, searching for answers to the really big questions along the way.

Sure enough, "The Big Kahuna" was adapted by screenwriter Roger Rueff from his play "Hospitality Suite." Director John Swanbeck, making his film debut, had staged it in Chicago. He knew Spacey from the original New York production of "Hurlyburly" and sent him a copy of Rueff's play. They shot the movie in 16 days in New York while Spacey was rehearsing for his Broadway turn in "The Iceman Cometh."

Considering the circumstances, is it any surprise that "The Big Kahuna" remains more of a filmed play than a fully realized work of cinema? Swanbeck gives it a try. The credit sequence, with faceless men in suits shaking hands and exchanging business cards, suggests the theme of male rituals -- the sociology of a salesman. The opening scene seems to confirm this as Phil patiently answers Bob's questions, both professional and personal. They could be mentor and student.

Then Larry enters like a whirlwind, criticizing Phil, who knows him well enough not to take real offense. Bob doesn't know what to make of him. But, as we will discover, the young man soon will be pushing his own agenda and we will be questioning just where our sympathies should lie -- and, with the characters, pondering the meaning of existence.

Rueff's philosophical hand gets a bit heavy and, perhaps, a tad manipulative by the time morning breaks. But Swanbeck manages to keep the movie from feeling claustrophobic. He hits on perhaps the best strategy for a film like this -- give us close-ups of the actors' faces and let them do the work.

With such performers as Spacey and DeVito, you can't go wrong. Spacey, the reigning Oscar winner for "American Beauty," gives us echoes of Lester Burnham's burnout, but Larry hasn't given up yet, not by a long shot. He wants this contract badly and there is desperation etched behind his acid commentary. DeVito has seldom been better as a dutiful man whose mantra of "We'll be all right" betrays a weariness that signals he's thinking about something beside business.

Young Facinelli, perhaps best known (and best forgotten) as the villain in "Supernova," fares as well as can be expected opposite these two heavyweights, effectively conveying the character's callowness.

"The Big Kahuna" doesn't really have any big answers to its big questions, although it provides some guideposts for the uninitiated and those unaware of the smugness of their assumptions. It ends with ambiguity that is almost a little too deliberate, a phrase that could also describe the rest of the movie.

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