Tag Archives: C

THE BIG KAHUNA

Kevin Spacey is such an extraordinary actor that he could
probably read the phone book onscreen and make it interesting–
and that’s a really good thing for John Swanbeck’s none-too-
cinematic version of Roger Rueff’s drama “Hospitality Suite,”
because, to put it mildly, this is not scintillating material.
“The Big Kahuna” is essentially a little one-set, two-act play
that’s one part deracinated David Mamet (of “Glengarry Glen
Ross”) and the other “Waiting for Godot.” It wants both to
impress us with its breezy, sometimes harsh dialogue and also
to raise large questions about life, work, faith and loyalty;
but unhappily it comes across as rather thin, derivative,
rather obvious stuff, invigorated only by the quality of
performance on display.

The set-up puts three employees of a Chicago industrial
lubricant company together in a rather cruddy hotel room in
Wichita, where a convention’s being held. Two of the men–
rumpled, over-the-hill Phil (Danny DeVito) and his partner,
snappy, cynical Larry (Spacey)–are old hands at the game, and
are planning a reception where they hope to land a career-
(and perhaps company-) saving account with one particular
conventioneer. The third member of the group is young,
straight-laced Bob (Peter Facinelli), who, as it turns out,
is a stern Baptist who wouldn’t think of drinking or cheating
on his recently-acquired wife, and who comes to view Larry’s
less-than-respectful remarks with deep suspicion. As the
labored conversation and incidents unfold, Bob becomes the
key to the success of the mission, but his proselytizing
tendencies endanger the effort. Over the course of a very
long day and night, issues are raised about salesmanship’s
connection with religion, and the centrality of both, in some
form, to life and friendship.

As is clear from even this brief summary, “The Big Kahuna” (the
title refers to the potential customer the three characters
are trying to nab) is basically a standard-issue gabfest which
might create a modest ripple on a stage but is pretty much out
of place on the screen, where its affected turns of phrase and
clumsy twists of plot seem positively creaky. All that saves
it in this instance is the fact that Spacey’s charisma is
bright enough to brighten even the most feeble dialogue, and
that DeVito adds a nicely contrasting, laid-back turn as his
less voluble, kindly colleague. Peter Facinelli is fresh-
faced and squeaky-clean as the humorless Bob, though he can’t
hold a candle to his co-stars. A few obviously inserted
through-the window shots of Kansas are all that director John
Swanbeck provides to try to open up the stagebound verbiage.

As an acting lesson, “The Big Kahuna” has some merit. But in
terms of dramaturgy it’s too placid and predictable to make
a final sale.

FINAL DESTINATION

Back in the halcyon days of black-and-white television, the
original “Twilight Zone” offered a script by Rod Serling titled
“And When the Sky Was Opened.” Based on a story by Richard
Matheson, it concerned three astronauts (Rod Taylor, Charles
Aidman and Jim Hutton) who returned to earth after their mission
had temporarily disappeared in space. In the course of
the show it became clear that their survival had been a
mistake in the fabric of destiny, and one by one they vanished
into oblivion, and the world’s recognition of their return
faded.

By “TZ” standards it wasn’t an outstanding episode, but “And
When the Sky Opened” is still preferable to the teen variant of
it assembled by “X-Files” veterans Glen Morgan and James Wong
in “Final Destination.” The premise–a pretty good one,
actually–is that when seven people, six students and a
teacher, depart a doomed airliner minutes before its departure
because of the horrifying premonition of a crash one of them
experiences, their escape of the calamity sets into motion the
force of fate, which systematically begins removing each of
them through some ghastly “accident.” The fashioners of the
piece thus achieve the goal of the modern generation of
slasher movies–arranging a succession of elaborate death
sequences for mostly young, and usually quite photogenic,
victims–without having to resort to the cliche of devising
some Freddy Kruger-like character to do the actual dirty work.

The problem that becomes apparent, as the movie unspools, is
that having once set up the premise, the makers have pretty
much shot their wad. The first twenty minutes of the flick,
in which nervous high-schooler Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) has
his precognition and runs screaming from the plane with his
six compatriots in pursuit, are nicely done, ominously building
a mood of dread that’s really quite effective (abetted by an
atmospheric if derivative score by Shirley Walker); and the
deaths which follow are cleverly choreographed, with two of
them having a kind of Rube Goldberg complexity and the third
the giddily shocking suddenness of the best moment of “Meet Joe
Black.” But as the explanatory mechanism of the plot kicks in,
things grow increasingly tiresome. We’re treated to a totally
extraneous explication of the “pattern of fate” our survivors
have abridged by a ghoulish undertaker (a cameo by Tony Todd,
recited in his resonant, sepulchral tones)–a scene that lapses
into dull self-parody. Underdeveloped secondary characters
(Kerr Smith as loudmouth bully Carter Horton, Seann William
Scott as geeky Billy Hitchcock) come to the fore, only to
become more and more irritating as their screen time expands. A
sequence with Alex in an isolated cabin, which promises to
develop into something akin to a riff on “The Evil Dead”
formula, simply fizzles. And then we’re forced to sit through
an elaborate finale in which the geography of affairs and the
precise nature of the threat are never made sufficiently clear,
as well as the obligatory epilogue-with-a-twist, which in the
present instance is very elaborate but more than a trifle
confusing.

In all of this one comes to miss the simplicity and economy of
the old “Twilight Zone” episode, which didn’t hesitate to close
on what was essentially a grim, downbeat note. Here, as so
frequently happens nowadays, the makers feel the necessity of
hedging their bets at the end so as not to be too bleak (and,
one might add, to leave room for a sequel if one seems
warranted). You also begin to worry about the condition of
poor Mr. Sawa, who has had to go through such strenuous paces
in last year’s “Idle Hands” and now this, that he seems to have
reached a point of absolute exhaustion. (It also can’t be
helpful to the lad’s leading-boy persona to be type-cast as a
sort of teenaged Bruce Campbell.)

But despite its failings, the picture does manage, especially
in its earlier stages, to be more stylish, inventive, and
(especially in its elaborate death sequences) imaginative than
most of the (admittedly wretched) examples of its genre. (For
this one must credit primrily Morgan and Wong, along with
cinematographer Robert McLachlan, who also worked with the
duo on the TV series “Millennium.”)

Still, it must be admitted that after its promising liftoff,
“Final Destination” loses altitude fairly quickly and
ultimately doesn’t get very far.