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Big Kahuna, The (1999)
Directed by John Swanbeck 
Starring Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Peter Facinelli

How is a movie different from a book or a play? Getting past the obvious issues of format and how an audience "sees" them, what are the differences between stories written for the page, the stage, and the silver screen? Are some narratives more suitable to books and plays than films? What are each's strengths and weaknesses, and what is the process of adapting one genre's successes to another? These questions lurk beneath the surface of any literary or dramatic movie adaptation, but they seem especially pertinent to The Big Kahuna, a new movie starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito.

If you showed The Big Kahuna to 100 intelligent people, I'm sure that 95 of them would guess that it was originally a play. All of the action takes place in one room (in a hospitality suite at a Wichita hotel), over the course of one day, and features three actors. A hotel bellhop is credited with one line, but otherwise there are only three speaking parts: Larry Mann (Kevin Spacey), Phil Cooper (Danny DeVito), and Bob Walker (Peter Facinelli).

These three are salesmen or marketing reps for Lodestar Laboratories, a Chicago industrial lubricant maker. They're in town for a business convention; and while they're looking to meet-and-greet dozens of potential clients, they have their eyes (and potential handshakes) set on one manufacturing president (the title character) who could mean the difference between spectacular success and embarrassing failure.

Larry and Phil are old pros at the sales game, while Bob is a callow researcher (and devout Christian) who's been brought along to look good and explain the latest product. But as Larry points out, Bob's primary role will be to play the bartender while he and Phil work the crowd, keeping a particular lookout for the Big Kahuna.

The twist of the story is that Bob is the one who unwittingly meets the Kahuna and then lets him get away, more concerned with sharing about Jesus than his company. Needless to say, Larry and Phil are non-plussed, but Bob, who's been invited by Big to a private party, has another chance to save the day. Except for a couple soundless shots of Bob at the party, all of the action stays in the hotel room where Larry and Phil discuss their lives and ever-shortening futures.

It's no mystery why Spacey (American Beauty) would've bought the rights to the play. Larry is a dream role for any actor--he's initially aggressive (harping on Phil for the meager hospitality suite and then turning his attention to the new kid) and moves from that to cynical humor, furious anger, righteous indignation, thoughtful reflection, sadness, and melancholy. He gets to mug for the audience and show off his chops. I think Spacey is a tremendous talent and believe he does a fine job in Big Kahuna, but detractors who find him too cocky or flamboyant will certainly have plenty of ammunition here.

The more difficult role of Phil--quietly suffering through a divorce, playing the mediator between Larry and Bob, just trying to do his job--is expertly handled by DeVito (L.A. Confidential). His subtle reaction shots and low-key line deliveries act as a perfect counter-balance to Spacey's bombast. The young buck who's more interested in saving souls than selling slip is also well-portrayed. Facinelli, whose only other major film role was in the teen flick Can't Hardly Wait, takes a difficult part and gives it a depth that would be easy to lose. While the writing sometimes fails him (in particular, when he obstinately starts quoting Scripture), he does an admirable job of standing up to Larry and convincingly arguing why selling lubricant might not be the most important task of the night.

That conflict between religion and work is only one of many big issues The Big Kahuna tackles. There are the subjects of marriage (Bob is newly married, Phil is newly divorced), God, success, life and death. When Phil slowly recalls a dream about God he had as a kid ("I dreamt I found him hiding in a closet in a burnt-out building"), the whole film seems to stop for the audience to reflect.

This conversation, among many, betrays the film's origins. While the claustrophobic setting, small cast, and tight time-frame would be easy give-aways, it's the film's dialogue that feels most like a play. There are long soliloquies, quiet and effective discourses in the dark, and heated confrontations, all of which seem more appropriate to the theater than the screen. Not that Roger Rueft's script is bad. In fact, it's quite provocative and interesting, particularly in its exploration of the role of faith in the business world. But I kept thinking that people don't talk like this in movies; they talk like this in plays. Why, I'm not sure, but The Big Kahuna still felt out of context. It doesn't help that debut director's John Swanbeck's few cinematic flourishes (three fantasy sequences, a series of slow-motion shots) felt equally out of place.

For Christian viewers, the most interesting aspect will be the ever-more-hostile argument Bob and Larry have over the place of faith in the work environment. If Bob is being paid to help sell lubricant, has he behaved unethically if he ignores that assignment to focus on a "higher calling"? Or has Larry become so obsessed with landing a big account that he's lost sight of the bigger picture--that a man's soul might be more important than his signature? Fortunately, the script is fairly balanced on this point, allowing each side to strongly assert its case, though it does expose Rueft's position in DeVito's final soliloquy.

Nonetheless, The Big Kahuna has many worthwhile qualities. The acting is strong, the script thought-provoking, and the ending is wonderfully ambiguous. If you're in the mood for a play at movie-theater prices, this might be your ticket. 

J. Robert Parks 5/14/2000


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