The Big Kahuna John Swanbeck
Published May 01, 2000Kevin Spacey does all of his acting without changing the blase expression on his face. He exudes such unshakable confidence, he always looks vaguely bored by everyone around him, and as a result, I'm starting to get bored of his shtick. In his new film, The Big Kahuna, he co-stars with Danny DeVito and Peter Facinelli (Can't Hardly Wait), and I was more interested in watching the two of them because their performances were fresh and sincere. Spacey can still dominate a scene with his effortless charisma (he's got the Judd Nelson role from Breakfast Club), but when you've got a movie that stays in a claustrophobic hotel room with three failing industrial lubricant salesmen for the full 90 minutes, you start to look for the not-so-obvious nuances.
The Big Kahuna is an adaptation of Roger Rueff's play, Hospitality Suite, and there's not much in the movie that couldn't have been accomplished on stage. I get the feeling that veteran theatre director John Swanbeck almost feels guilty about indulging himself in using the film medium. He's still attached to the minimalism of the theatre, so he doesn't open up the action at all. This is good news for Spacey, DeVito and Facinelli, because Swanbeck's camera fawns over their performances like a proud father, giving each of them their moments to show off their acting chops in big, uncluttered close-ups.
This bare-bones approach also serves Rueff's screenplay quite well, allowing his thematic subtleties to float to the surface and create some interesting paradoxes. Spacey's character, Larry Mann, may not be as shallow and cocky as he seems at first. DeVito's Phil spends most of the first act reading a rumpled up copy of Penthouse (and he's actually reading it), but he ends up delivering an incisive, devastating speech that cuts right through the wholesome exterior of Facinelli's character, Bob. ("You've done plenty of things to regret - you just don't know what they are yet.") The Big Kahuna is all about how people sell themselves to others, and it's about how hardcore salesmen, the most American of all losers, can still maintain some sense of personal authenticity. Beneath this very familiar story and its uninspired execution, there's something very substantial lurking in the message of this movie. Unfortunately, the impact of those razor sharp insights is dulled considerably by the ridiculous Baz Luhrmann song that plays over the final scene.