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THE BIG KAHUNA

1999, dir. John Swanbeck
90 min. Rated R.
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Danny Devito, Peter Facinelli.

Review by Noel Wood
I'm really suprised that I ever saw THE BIG KAHUNA. Not that it wasn't something I'd had a keen interest in seeing since it first came out, but it's the kind of movie that always just sort of slips past by me when I pop in to the local video store. Sure, it looked interesting enough, and had some pretty good stars in it, but it was always a second or third choice and wound up being put back in the shelf without a voyage home with me. Recently, I borrowed a copy of the movie from a friend, and after a few weeks of sitting on it (no, not litterally, because that would get really uncomfortable pretty quick. Especially considering it was a VHS copy) I finally decided to pop it in and give it a look.

THE BIG KAHUNA is based on "Hospitality Suite", which is a play, a fact that becomes pretty obvious to anyone with a modicum of sense pretty quickly in to a movie. 99% of the action takes place in one room, between three characters. That's it. I know it doesn't sound as exciting as the latest Vin Diesel Drives Fast And Blows Shit Up popcorn flick, but that's what this movie is all about. It's just some business guys conducting a meet and greet, trying to wrangle a top client. So if you're not into "talking head" movies, maybe you oughtta just back up now.

    

THE BIG KAHUNA stars Kevin Spacey, Danny Devito, and Peter Facinelli. Aside from one other schmuck who appears as a bellboy, these are the only three credited performers. This film came out around the tail end of Kevin Spacey's run as being a respected performer, right before he lined himself up a series of stinkers like K-PAX, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and PAY IT FORWARD. Here, he was fresh off AMERICAN BEAUTY, and still somewhat respected. Oh, don't get me wrong. I love Mr. Spacey, although purely in a heterosexual way. Granted, his performance in this film makes it even more apparent than ever before that he might not only be interested in heterosexual love, but that's neither here nor there. He's still a great actor, and that is very apparent in this film. He just seems to have a nasty case of Kilmeritis. Perhaps we should rename that condition to Spaceyitis. Anyway, I'm getting away from the point here. Spacey is accompanied by Danny Devito. Devito is also a competent character actor and short bald Italian guy who lends a really cool vibe to whatever short bald Italian guy he's portraying. He's the kind of celebrity I think would be a lot of fun to hang out with. Seriously, if I was having a party and could invite one celebrity, I'd choose Devito. Not Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwartzenegger or Harrison Ford or other big money box office draw, but that short guy from Taxi. I'd hope he drag along his short little wife too, because I'd bet they'd be a funny pair. The third player here is Peter Facinelli, who appearing next to these two greats reminds me of that Jeff Lynne guy hanging out with the other Traveling Wilburys. You may remember Peter from CAN'T HARDLY WAIT, where he played Jennifer Love Hewitt's knuckle-dragging boyfriend. That's about the extent of his range, although I can't fault him for trying to put in a good performance here.

    

Spacey and Devito play Larry and Phil, two veteran salesmen trying to land The Mother Of All Industrial Lubricant Accounts by staging a meeting in a Hospitality Suite of a hotel in Wichita. They've recruited Bob, a young newlywed, as their third. Bob's nothing like the other two. He hasn't learned the ropes yet, he's not down with all the tricks of the trade. Also, he's highly religious, so the gruff language of his elders gets him a bit uncomfortable.

So they talk. And talk. And talk and talk and talk. And talk some more. There ain't much more to this movie than dialogue. And that's the way it works. You have to be prepared to deal with wordiness. If SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION frightened you, if GLENGARRY GLEN ROSSdidn't get your attention, then THE BIG KAHUNA is not going to be your speed. It's a play, and it delivers like a play. Movies based on plays tend to get a lot of shit from some reviewers, because of the fact that they tend to be restictive on setting. Some films based on plays have managed to work around this by adding new locations, but in a lot of cases, this isn't necessary. Sure, they coulda worked some of the dialogue of THE BIG KAHUNA into a new setting, like a restaurant or a bar, but really, what would be the point? This story is told by the dialogue and very few actions. To alter that would ruin the basic gist of the movie.

    

THE BIG KAHUNA worked well as a satire, but also did a great job of showing another side to characters who spend their lives kissing ass. The fact that the main characters' names; Bob, Phil, and Larry; are so milquetoast and generic, the fact that they always address each other by name, the fact that the product they're selling is Industrial friggin' Lubricant! This is all brilliant satire that might easily be lost. On top of that, we get to see these characters being themselves when they're not trying to sell something. The sole exception is Bob, who has not yet learned to turn off selling what he believes in his personal life when he's selling what he needs to sell in his business life. This winds up being the main arc of the story, as Bob takes it upon himself to spend his time with the hot client to discuss the word of Christ rather than the product he's being paid to shill.

I enjoyed THE BIG KAHUNA. It's not the greatest movie in its genre, and it's not a film I expect I'll be watching again and again, but it's an interesting little study of character and priority. One day, maybe Kevin Spacey will go back and watch it too, and will figure out that at one point he was a great actor who picked his roles carefully.

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