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The Big Kahuna

"Glengarry Glen Ross" on an existential binge.


Two hard-ass salesmen (Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito) and one naove green leaf (Peter Facinelli) contemplate life, death and the big JC as they hustle to land a fat account by the end of the night. Screenwriter Roger Rueff (who also penned the original play) shows off his talent with some brilliant, engaging dialogue. Unfortunately, problems with sudden shifts in mood and tone set back the otherwise generally strong screenplay.


Good lines are meant to be uttered by good actors. And in this case, only Danny DeVito fits the bill with his weary vulnerability. Kevin Spacey borders on overacting most of the film, and it's only good (but really good) once he settles down into quieter moments. The weak link here is Peter Facinelli, who pales in comparison to the veteran actors.


Proving that he knows how to handle heady material and big stars, director John Swanbeck has made a notable debut with "The Big Kahuna." The upstart smartly transcends the restrictions of a single locale by keenly playing with lighting and texture in certain key scenes. Swanbeck is certainly someone to look for in the future.

Bottom Line

It's good, but it's no David Mamet.


Starring Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito and Peter Facinelli.

Directed by John Swanbeck. Produced by Kevin Spacey. Screenplay by Roger Rueff. Released by Lions Gate.

For Kevin Spacey, "The Big Kahuna" is far from an ideal commercial follow-up to "American Beauty" in reaffirming his new star status. It's a small picture, its stage roots all too evident, and the role Spacey plays is superficially so similar to the one that won him an Oscar it invites comparisons between the two films unfavorable to "The Big Kahuna."

But as an actor and co-producer, it's understandable that Spacey and theater director John Swanbeck, in his film debut, would be eager to bring Roger Rueff's prizewinning 1992 play "Hospitality Suite" to the screen. If you're prepared to accept an inherent staginess that gradually fades as the film progresses, you can become caught up in a drama of extraordinary power and insight with dazzling performances from not only Spacey but also Danny DeVito (who may well be at his best ever) and from newcomer Peter Facinelli.

"The Big Kahuna" was shot over 16 days in New York (plus some establishing shots filmed in Wichita). It's unlikely to be anything near a big hit but clearly was so comparatively inexpensive to make that it doesn't have to set box-office records to have been well worth making.

"The Big Kahuna" takes place almost entirely in a 16th-floor hospitality suite in a Wichita hotel. It has been rented by DeVito's Phil, a 52-year-old marketing rep for a manufacturer of industrial lubricants. The occasion is the annual convention of the Midwest Manufacturers' Assn., and Phil and his soon-to-arrive fellow rep and colleague of 12 years, Larry (Spacey), are out to catch "the big kahuna," the president of a manufacturing company, that could result in the biggest contract of their careers.

Phil has summoned a young man from his employer's research division to supply technical information just in case it's needed, but as far as Phil is initially concerned, Bob (Facinelli) is little more than requisite window dressing.

Larry arrives in full bombast, criticizing everything in high dudgeon. In his vociferous view the suite's too small and drab and the hors d'oeuvres woefully inadequate. He gives the stunned Bob, who's been with the company only six months, the third degree and then some. Gradually, we realize that Larry is working through a feeling of desperation and also wants to make sure that Bob will do absolutely nothing to louse up the deal.

Beneath a crust of corrosive cynicism, Larry is actually a dedicated professional, a decent man of principle who has never cheated on his wife of 15 years. He's a man with whom Phil would trust with his life. At the moment, however, Phil, who is going through a divorce, doesn't think much of his life. He speaks of making changes and has developed a craving for spirituality--he's thinking a lot about God.

Phil and especially Larry are none too thrilled with Bob. He's bright and personable but religious in a pious, narrow way. No small amount of humor develops, however, when a series of clever plot developments force Larry and Phil to realize that they are going to have to depend upon Bob to deliver the account.

When Rueff attended a manufacturer's convention (in Wichita yet) as a chemical engineer at Amoco's research center in Illinois, he was inspired to write this play, not based on any actual salesman or himself, but rather a situation that lent itself to exploring issues of honesty, integrity, loyalty and spirituality in regard to the relationship between one's work and one's life. The film's key exchange occurs when Phil, a man of wisdom and character, tries to open up the mind and heart of Bob and free him of his self-righteous, judgmental ways without casting any aspersion on his--or anyone else's--religion.

DeVito has moments of mesmerizing calm as Phil, which allows him to draw upon resources that prove as formidable in supplying seriousness as in his more familiar comic mode. Spacey is just as savagely dyspeptic as he was in "American Beauty," but here Larry's torrent of scabrously cynical remarks proves to be surprisingly at odds with the admirable man lurking just below the surface. Larry affords Spacey terrific range and virtuosity, but ultimately the essential gravity of DeVito's resigned Phil anchors the film. Facinelli brings to Bob a fine mix of diffidence and pride, topped with just enough ambiguity to keep us wondering just how sincere this priggish fellow really is. Could Bob actually be a slick operator beyond Larry and Phil's imagining?

Production designer Kalina Ivanov has got that hospitality suite just right. It's done in shades of safe, dull browns. It's not truly small yet is not quite spacious. It has the look of having been decorated by a conservative professional but is totally impersonal. It's entirely acceptable but is exactly the environment calculated to depress Phil and Larry, who could use a real lift to their spirits.

It's easy enough to say that you could wish Swanbeck and Rueff, in adapting his play himself, could have been more cinematic in bringing "Hospitality Suite" to the screen, but it's hard to imagine just how they might have done it, especially when they've been wise enough to avoid any gratuitous opening up. (They might have considered paring down or recasting dialogue to make it seem more conversational and less theatrical, especially in the opening sequences.) The look of the picture is fine, however, and cinematographer Anastas Michos brings to it a certain melancholy tone he also used in "Keeping the Faith."

* MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: Although the film's themes are appropriate for mature older children, the film's language is strong and graphic.

'The Big Kahuna'

Kevin Spacey: Larry

Danny DeVito: Phil

Peter Facinelli: Bob

A Lions Gate Films presentation of a Trigger Street and Franchise Pictures production. Director John Swanbeck. Producers Elie Samaha, Kevin Spacey, Andrew Stevens. Screenplay by Roger Rueff; based on his play "Hospitality Suite." Cinematographer Anastas Michos. Editor Peggy Davis. Music Christopher Young. Costumes Katherine Jane Bryant. Production designer Kalina Ivanov. Art director Frank White III. Set decorator Suzie Goudler.. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.