The ethos of American business is scrutinized in “The Big Kahuna,” a small-scale, intimate drama that juxtaposes various attitudes toward work as represented by three men in different phases of their lives. A terrific ensemble, toplined by Kevin Spacey (who doubles as a producer), Danny DeVito and Peter Facinelli, elevates this slightly opened-up stage play to a passable level of bigscreen entertainment. Theatrical prospects are good for a well-acted, engaging drama that’s sprinkled with dark humor and sharp observations about the tension between careerism and personal values.
In a dreary Wichita hotel during a Midwest manufacturers’ convention, three salesmen specializing in industrial lubricants engage in heavy discussions on the meaning of work and life — specifically, how religious and ethical beliefs interface with — and impinge on — professional matters. At first, tale seems to be a reworking of David Mamet’s thematic turf (“Glengarry Glen Ross” and others), but gradually, writer Roger Rueff finds a distinctive dramatic angle — and a particular moral — to separate his play from other anatomies of American work ethics.
Phil (DeVito) is a burned-out account manager in his 50s who is used to life on the road and lonely stays in remote hotels, and who’s undergoing a painful divorce. He is contrasted with Bob (Facinelli), a quiet, twentysomething researcher, newly married and in awe of his wife, and traveling on business for the first time. Bob is eager to hear every piece of wisdom Phil has accumulated about the road and the job.
Enter Larry (Spacey), a loud, energetic man who smokes, drinks and lusts after women (especially if they’re dressed in business suits). Boasting a unique outlook on life, Larry thrives on confrontation, and it doesn’t take long before he gets in Bob’s face, demanding to know what kind of women he likes (if indeed he likes them at all), what makes him so devoutly spiritual and what motivated him to choose such an industry to work in.
Closely observing unity of time, place and action, narrative takes place in the course of one long evening, during which the three men wait for a powerful potential customer to drop by their hospitality suite and boost their fledgling account– and dwindling spirits. This familiar device (will the man appear?) lends some suspense to a drama that’s thin in plot but rich in insights.
A brief, silent scene depicting social mingling of business associates and potential customers leaves open the question of whether the expected guest, Dick Fuller (aka the Big Kahuna), showed up. Phil and Larry, who blame each other for failing to bring Fuller to their suite, are shocked to realize that Fuller did come (wearing another man’s name tag) and that he spent the entire evening commiserating with Bob over his recently deceased dog.
Shot in 16 days, almost entirely on one set in New York, “The Big Kahuna” still feels like a play, with well-timed entrances and exits, long, verbose speeches and dramatic confrontations. Nonetheless, helmer John Swanbeck serves the theatrical material quite effectively, with camera moves and close-ups that highlight the strong moments.
Swanbeck also showcases brilliantly the diverse talents of his three thesps, allowing each one to hold center stage when his part calls for it. Spacey and DeVito are such pros that it’s a pleasure to observe their charged but smooth give-and-take dialogue. Newcomer Facinelli, who looks very much like the young Tom Cruise, holds his own in a demanding role full of surprises.
What distinguishes “The Big Kahuna” from similar plays by Arthur Miller and Mamet is its lack of bitterness or cynicism. It is certainly not a case of the “basic training” or disenchantment of a young, naive and spiritual manager. At the end of the day, the interaction among the trio is mutually beneficial, each absorbing unexpected lessons about his psyche, his career and the very meaning of his life.