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.