The Big Kahuna covers about twelve hours in the lives of three employees of a Chicago industrial lubricant company. Two of them, Larry (Kevin Spacey) and Phil (Danny DeVito), are sales reps who have been with the company for years; the third, Bob (Peter Facinelli), is an untested kid from the research department who’s been told to assist them at a sales convention in Wichita.
We immediately get a sense of these men’s place in the food chain when we see the hospitality suite where they have to schmooze up their potential clients, and where nearly all of the movie’s action takes place. Even though it’s located on the hotel’s sixteenth floor, its balcony view only looks out on a desolate corner of the city. The room is crowded with model home furniture, its walls are covered with hideously patterned wallpaper, and it’s dominated by an outsized bar and a fake fireplace.
Larry and Phil want to drum up any business they can, but they especially want to get their hooks into a man named Fuller – the account would put their company over the top for the first time in its history. Their need to score has the two old friends on edge, making them rag on each other like ill-fitting spouses. Larry never stops selling even when he’s making idle chitchat, and his nonstop zingers and epigrams underscore the cynicism he’s taken on like a protective shroud. Phil, on the other hand, is feeling empty, besieged. His recent divorce has put him into a state of mourning, and given him a glimpse of his own mortality.
The two men have only a little time to bring Bob up to speed, and it isn’t long before we realize their longwinded speeches about the ins and outs of their trade are also directed at themselves – they’re trying to make sense of their own lives. Bob is slightly overwhelmed at being thrown into (what is for him) the big time, but he’s surprisingly assertive for a junior partner. He’s not afraid to ask questions, or even to chastise Phil for reading "Penthouse" magazine. When it comes out that Bob has unwittingly become friends with Fuller, and that he feels prohibited by his Christian beliefs from exploiting the contact’s commercial possibilities, Larry and Phil must thrash out the nature of a profession that turns human relationships into commodities.
Larry and Phil may look the heirs of Willy Loman, or like cousins of the venal, harried real estate salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross, but Kahuna has prey on its mind beyond the dark side of the American Dream. "Big kahuna" is a reference to Fuller, but also to happiness, and to death, and to God. The force of Bob’s faith causes Larry and Phil to reappraise their lives and priorities, even as the older men’s pragmatism calls into question the integrity of Bob’s religious convictions.
The Big Kahuna is not a movie for everyone. Adapted by Roger Rueff from his play Hospitality Suite, the movie often feels more like an encounter group than a drama – it’s one of those long night’s journey into day stories where the characters are all a little sadder but wiser at the end. It’s hard not to weary of characters when you feel like you’re on a submarine with them, and the talkative Larry is particularly trying. His overly arch dialogue is padded with so many "at this junctures" and "dare I says" that the sound of Spacey’s voice becomes like a song you can’t get out of your head.
John Swanbeck’s direction is extraordinarily blunt, as if he fears that injecting a little verve into the proceedings would compromise the purity of his material. And Swanbeck hasn’t encouraged his actors to use their bodies as much as they might have. It would be nice to have a few more spells where we could just watch these actors inhabit their roles without also having to listen to them; there are too few shots like the one of an exasperated Spacey reacting to a light switch that doesn’t work.
But Kahuna is a sincere and intelligent film, and it clearly represents an experimental break for Spacey and DeVito. Despite Larry’s volubility, Spacey (who also co-produced the film) doesn’t make his role into a star turn – he doesn’t have any special lighting or emphasis. DeVito shows a more tender side of himself than we’re used to seeing, especially in the corker of a speech that closes the movie. Facinelli is straightjacketed by Bob’s naivete early on, but that’s mostly because the script is tone-deaf to the differences between inexperience and stupidity. He does much better when it comes out that the veiled Bob has two sides to him: the one whose face lights up with the transcendent glow of religious fervor, and the one who secretly daydreams of being a life-of-the-party raconteur.
Salesman, the Maysles brothers’ searing 1969 documentary about door-to-door Bible salesmen, ends with the sight of an aging drummer just as he’s forced to acknowledge that he can’t achieve even the limited ambitions he’s set for himself in life. The Big Kahuna also ends with one of its characters facing his future with a new sense of reality; but in this case, there may still be a future to look forward to.
– Tom Block