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Between its perfectly awful title and a visceral loathing of Clintonista producer and star Kevin Spacey, I'd found it easy to skip right past this one on the video rental shelf.  Then, to my surprise and chagrin, I started reading really good things about it, from both mainstream critics like Roger Ebert and from conservative and even Christian critics.

The story is pretty basic : Larry Mann (Kevin Spacey) is an overly frontal salesman, whose every word seems to be sales patter of one kind or another, whether selling industrial lubricants or his own take on the world; Phil Cooper (Danny DeVito) is his older partner, going through a mid-life crisis, recently divorced, chain smoking, reading Penthouse; and Bob Walke (Peter Facinelli) a young researcher sent along to explain the product to prospective customers, is a fresh-scrubbed, impossibly earnest Christian.  The three set up shop in a "hospitality suite" (the title of the original 1992 play) in Wichita, Kansas, where there's a trade convention going on.  Their goal is to secure a lucrative account with Dick Fuller, whose purchasing potential has made him their "Big Kahuna".

The film takes place entirely in the one hotel room, betraying its stage origins (play and screenplay are both by Roger Rueff).  Voluble Larry seems to find it necessary to get his game face on by shocking the rather rigid Bob, while the world weary Phil tries to maintain calm as they wait for the party to start in their room.  At one point Larry confronts Bob over the notion that looking at a woman lustfully is in and of itself a sin.  Since even Jimmy Carter acknowledged his own sinfulness in this regard, Bob's protests, that his loyalty to his wife precludes such yearning glances, seem self-deluded.  Meanwhile, Larry's eagerness to antagonize him is truly obnoxious.

The scene then skips to the postparty aftermath and the bitter realization that the Big Kahuna didn't show.  In the midst of Larry's tirades about their failure Bob realizes that actually he's just spent the better part of the evening talking to Fuller without even realizing it.  To Larry's horror, Bob reveals that far from discussing lubricants, they'd instead talked about issues of life and death and the Big Kahuna's recent loss of a beloved dog.  Instead of networking or bargaining or whatever, Bob feels satisfied because they made a human connection.  They'd even become friendly enough that Fuller invited him to an after hours party.  Faced with no other options, Larry and Phil quickly prep Bob and send him off to the party to make a sales pitch.

At this point we're ready for the story to go one of two ways.  Larry has been annoying enough and Bob seems innocent enough for this to be a story about the value of a Christian sensibility and the hollowness of business.  On the other hand, Bob has also been pedantic and self-righteous enough for the filmmakers to turn this into a critique of his sanctimony.  But as Larry and Phil sit around the room, waiting for Bob to return, the film takes a much different turn, finally Phil comes to the fore.

It turns out that he and Larry are genuine friends, that despite their sharp-edged banter they like one another.  But Phil isn't sure he likes who he has become or the work that they do.  He feels like there's something else he should be doing with his life and has apparently even considered ending his life (though one would note that in a fantasy sequence where he leaps off the hotel balcony he appears to soar rather than plunge).  In quiet soulful conversation Phil shares a childhood dream with Larry, a dream whose meaning is quite obviously religious.  He also mentions a particular Bible verse that has staid with him--Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends-- and asks if Larry loves him, a question that Larry can not, or will not answer.  But Phil appears unbothered by his friend's incapacity and his own look indicates that he would die for his friend.  For all Bob's overt piety, it is Phil who emerges here as the true holy man.  Where Larry believes in nothing but the job and the next sale and Bob wears his doctrines as a kind of armor that spares him the need to think things through and guarantees his salvation, Phil is genuinely searching, a pilgrim trying to realize the admonition to "love one another", trying to understand how to be a good man.  He attempts to draw his friend in, but Larry is too much involved in the religion of sales to really grapple with the bigger questions that Phil is facing.

It's at this point that Bob returns and sheepishly admits that once again he failed to bring up the topic of lubricants with the Big Kahuna.  He justifies himself by telling an enraged Larry that they talked about Jesus Christ instead, because that's what's important to him.  Rarely will you see a better demonstration of what it means to be inconsiderate.  Bob has simply failed to consider the people who are depending on him.  He's so involved in his own selfish mission--and yes his desire to bring the word of Christ to the Big Kahuna is fundamentally selfish--that the very real needs of his compatriots are forgotten.  Larry eventually attacks Bob physically, and after Phil breaks it up, straggles out of the room, having been brought face to frightening face with his near willingness to kill for a sale.

Once he's gone though, Phil offers a devastating assessment of Bob's own character, one with which we can't help but agree.  In fact, he tells Bob that he has no character, because he has no regrets.   Stunned, Bob asks if he has to do something he'll regret in order to develop character.  Phil explains that he's missing the point, that he has, of course, already done things he should regret and it's the failure to recognize this that demonstrates his lack of character.  Here the film gets to the very essence of Judeo-Christianity, the recognition that humanity is defined by its imperfection, by sinfulness, by the capacity to do wrong, even to do evil.  To be human is unfortunately to do things we should regret.  To begin to be a good person it is necessary to feel regretful for the wrongful things that we inevitably do and only when we recognize this truth about ourselves and those around us can we begin to love one another, faults and all.  Contrary to some of the shallower criticism of the film, Phil isn't denigrating Christianity, he's summoning Bob to a more genuine Christianity, to a fulfillment of Christ's singular commandment : That ye love one another, as I have loved you.

For all the scenery-chewing showiness of Spacey's performance it is DeVito who dominates the film by its end.  He plays his part with an eerie calmness and a room-filling quiet.  His Phil enables us to see the qualities that redeem Larry as well as those that condemn Bob.  And he stands in counterpoise to Bob and Larry by the very thoroughness with which he has considered his partners and the gentle, loving, very personal way in which he interacts with them.  The hospitality that exists in this suite is a function of Phil's generosity, his spiritual generosity, towards Larry and Bob.   Much of the criticism of the movie (see below) seems to assume that Phil is just a beaten-down pragmatist and that the dismemberment of Bob's Christian facade offers the film's entire take on religion, but that misses entirely the religious awakening or reawakening that Phil is undergoing.

In the childhood dream that Phil tells Larry about he says that he dreamed he found God hiding in a closet in a bombed out city.  It's difficult to see how critics can have missed the seemingly obvious point that the suite is the closet (early in the movie Larry even wheels a coatrack out of the room as if to deny that it is closetlike), modernity the city, and that Phil has in fact found God (the Big Kahuna).  In the final scene we see at least the possibility that Larry and Bob, though it's unlikely they've learned to love one other, have begun to consider one another; perhaps during their time in the hospitality suite (in the presence of the Big Kahuna/God) Phil has been able to penetrate the shell of selfishness that surrounds each of them and they've emerged better, more considerate, more generous, more hospitable, men.  We certainly hope so.

It's a superior and thoughtful film and, though some may justifiably find it too slow or uneventful, it is worth seeing just for DeVito's fine performance and for the nicely nuanced treatment of religious themes and of the human condition.

(Reviewed:30-Mar-02)

Grade: (A)

Websites:

See also:

    -INFO : The Big Kahuna (1999) (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : John Swanbeck
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Roger Rueff
    -INTERVIEW : with Roger Rueff (Screenwriter Magazine)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Danny Michael DeVito
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Kevin Spacey
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (James Berardinelli's ReelViews)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Steve Lansingh, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna  (Doug Cummings, Chiarascuro)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Jeffrey Overstreet, Looking Closer)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Jeff Hurley, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (David Bruce, Hollywood Jesus)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (J's Magic)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (ELVIS MITCHELL, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Bob Graham, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (BOB THOMPSON, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Kevin Thomas, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Tom Block, Culture Vulture)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Flick Filosopher)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (J. Robert Parks, Phantom Tollbooth)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Stuart Semmel, Philadelphia City Paper)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Ernest Hardy, Film.com)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Tobias Peterson, PopMatter)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Jason Anderson, Eye Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Rob Blackwelder, Spliced Wire)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna (Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Health)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna  (Brian Heflin, Stranger Things)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna  (Jude Seymour, Film Junkies)
    -REVIEW : of The Big Kahuna  (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)

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