Let's be honest. Anything from Kevin Spacey after his terrific turn in "American Beauty" was sure to be a letdown. So it's probably a wise choice Spacey made to star in "The Big Kahuna," a low-budget adaptation of a three-man stage play. More of an acting exercise than a full-fledged movie, "The Big Kahuna" was shot in 16 days for less than $1.8 million with Spacey serving as producer.
"The Big Kahuna" takes place over one long night almost entirely in a 16th-floor hospitality suite in a Wichita, Kan., hotel. It's the annual convention of the Midwest Manufacturers' Association and longtime colleagues Phil (Danny DeVito) and Larry (Spacey) are out to snag the biggest contract of their career. To help close the deal, Phil has brought along neophyte Bob (Peter Facinelli), a young man from his company's research division, to supply technical data in case it's needed. Phil's first impression of Bob is less than favorable, appraising him as nothing more than required window dressing.
When Larry joins this uneasy duo, the balance of power shifts. Everything is wrong, all wrong. Loudly, Larry announces that the room is too small, the decor too drab, and even the hors d'oeuvres way below the standards of their elusive target. Then he turns his sights onto Bob, giving him the third degree and then some. Gradually, we come to realize that all of this sound and fury signifies something vital to Larry. He's working out of a sense of desperation and wants to make sure that Bob will do nothing to sour the deal.
Beneath his corrosive coating of cynicism, we soon discover that Larry is actually a dedicated professional, a man of principle who has never cheated on his wife of 15 years despite being a traveling salesman. Larry is usually just the man Phil would trust his life to, except things aren't going so well for Phil right now. In the midst of a divorce, Phil talks of making changes and has developed a craving for spirituality. Phil thinks about God a lot, but he's caught off guard by Bob's pious but narrow ways.
Ironically, the movie's best acting comes from DeVito and not Spacey. Not that Spacey isn't his usual talented self, it's just that the role of Larry falls awfully close to that of Lester Burnham, Spacey's Oscar-winning role in "American Beauty." In his best performance in years, DeVito has moments of mesmerizing calm as Phil, which allows the actor to show off his formidable talents instead of relying on his usual comic troll shtick. The film's key exchange occurs when Phil, a man of wisdom and character, tries to open up Bob's mind and heart and free him of his self-righteous and judgmental ways.
Facinelli makes Bob a fine mix of diffidence and pride, with just enough ambiguity to keep us guessing about the truthfulness of his priggishness. Could Bob be an even slicker character than either Larry or Phil ever imagined?
From early in the evening until well past midnight, these characters trade jabs, share experiences and reflect on what is meaningful to them. Each represents a distinct stage in life: Bob is the callow youth, brimming with confidence and certain that his path is the right one. Larry is still the zealous hard-charger, but his reasons are simpler, one of family and responsibility. He wants to close the deal, but not out of some religious fervor. And then there's Phil, who has grown weary as he's grown older. By default, he becomes the referee in the struggles between Bob's sanctimonious idealism and Larry's cynical reality.
As intriguing as the setting and their struggle is, "The Big Kahuna" never quite loses its "staginess." And first-time director John Swanbeck, who has a longer track record directing for the stage, makes the usual rookie mistake telling his actors to let 'er rip and then capturing their interaction with far too many close-ups, draining the life force right out of them.
Essentially a movie of filmed conversations, "The Big Kahuna" starts off well and ends well. And the performances from DeVito and Spacey are terrific. If only the middle hadn't sagged so pitifully.
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