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The Big Kahuna   B-

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Swanbeck
Writer: Roger Rueff (based on his play)
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Peter Facinelli.

Review by Rob Vaux

After winning an Oscar for his outstanding turn in American Beauty, it seems only natural for Kevin Spacey to go back to his theatrical roots. Based on the play Hospitality Suite, The Big Kahuna joins earlier Spacey projects such as Glengarry Glen Ross and Hurlyburly as a transfer from stage to screen. Changing mediums this way contains its own risks: the limited confines and dialogue-driven plots of theater can easily stumble against the unlimited visual potential of film. Unfortunately, The Big Kahuna suffers somewhat during the switch, but thanks to Spacey -- and some help from Danny DeVito -- it still makes the most of the opportunity.

Filmed in only 16 days on a microscopic budget, The Big Kahuna takes place almost entirely in a single hotel room: the hospitality suite overlooking beautiful downtown Wichita. There a pair of industrial lubricant salesmen, Phil (DeVito) and Larry (Spacey), have gathered to snare the title character: a company president who represents their biggest potential sale in decades. They've brought along a young technical advisor named Bob (Peter Facinelli) as window dressing, unaware of how important he will become.

As the drama proceeds -- more through a series of conversations than any concrete action -- it's clear that Larry desperately wants to land the account. He turns his vicious wit onto every perceived shortcoming -- the room, the view, the hors d'oeuvres -- while his colleagues try to calm him down. Phil, on the other hand, stays very quiet. He's going through a divorce and a lifetime of woes is slowly getting to him. Neither he nor Larry give the slightest thought to Bob, the young rookie who doesn't quite know how to handle himself. But beneath his bright-eyed confusion, Bob has a pious religious streak, a fact which the trio must ultimately rely on to land the big account.

In telling this story, The Big Kahuna clearly displays its theatrical origins. The action takes place over the course of a single evening, and we rarely move beyond the confines of the one hotel room. In fact, there's only four speaking parts in the entire film. All of this leads to a very "canned theater" feeling which works to The Big Kahuna's detriment. We're left with a drawn-out character study rather than a real film, punctuated by extended periods of dialogue and a lot of tight close-ups. Larry's gunfire wit comes across more like clever screenwriting than genuine character, and the monologues smack of dramatic artifice. Granted, the dialogue is quite sharp and engaging, but unadorned as it is, it never really escapes its origins. On stage, this material probably plays like gangbusters; here, it feels like a wasted opportunity.

It falls to the actors, then, to salvage this production, and in them The Big Kahuna finds its saving grace. Spacey's performance is electric, reminding the viewer why he's won two Oscars. He infuses Larry with some real humanity beneath the bombastic cynicism: we see the desperation in his vicious complaints and the genuinely good-hearted man hiding behind them. He finds a strong match in DeVito, who underplays his role with quiet effectiveness. Phil has learned to roll with life's punches and while he's clearly struggling with his inner demons, he's ready to accept the things he can't change. Newcomer Facinelli completes the trio admirably, and while he doesn't have to do as much, his earnestness provides some pivotal drama during the movie's climactic moment. Together the three of them bring some much-needed depth to The Big Kahuna, helping us to forget the raw artifice that we're watching.

Considering the low budget and short production schedule, it's hard to fault this film too much. There's nothing actively wrong with The Big Kahuna, it simply feels more appropriate at a community theater rather than the local multiplex. Some things just aren't meant to be filmed. It's lucky to have a strong foundation in Spacey and his co-stars. One shudders to think where it would have been without them. As it is, The Big Kahuna can boast some strong performances and material good enough to facilitate them. That it probably would work better elsewhere is less an active fault than a forlorn regret.

Review published 05.05.2000.

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