Professional Critics

‘Big Kahuna’: A Well-Oiled Act
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2000

Big Kahuna paperIs Kevin Spacey a great actor or just a really cool white guy?

That will be the artistic dilemma with which he deals over the next few years, Oscar or not; and it certainly won’t be settled easily, as he works his magic as the glib, cocky, sure yapper. Is this acting? Or is it just being cool?

“The Big Kahuna” is distinctly of the cool category. He’s terrific in a vividly shallow turn that could most aptly be called an impersonation–it’s not really a performance. This is the Kevin Spacey we all love to love: voluble, fast, funny, with a verbal dexterity miles beyond that of any other American actor. He doesn’t read dialogue, he toys with it, diddles with it, makes it dance loops in his mouth, ultimately spits it out in lacy filigrees or bubbles with bubbles inside. It’s great. But is it acting?

And are too many of Spacey’s appearances too much like too many of his other appearances? It might help here if the material were deeper. The movie, based on a play by former chemical engineer Roger Rueff, who also wrote the screenplay, might be described as “Waiting for Godot” meets “Death of a Salesman” as dialed down for EZ listenin’. It’s an actor’s exercise set in a hospitality suite in a Wichita, Kan., hotel: three industrial-lubricant salesmen contemplate life, faith, mortality, declining sales and really rotten cheese dip. Actually, the play and screenplay’s one signal stroke of wit is the very concept of “lubrication,” for that’s really what’s being discussed here.

What is, say, religion but the lubrication of the soul, the fast, slippery way of getting into Heaven? What is salesmanship but a form of social lubrication, and what is a pitch but a lube job on a reluctant client? What is love but a form of glandular lubrication? What is Kevin Spacey’s best virtue as an actor but his gift for oral lubrication: He could talk a bird into giving up flight. But can he talk Bob Walker into giving up God?

Bob, played by Peter Facinelli (last seen as a psycho in “Supernova”) with a stubborn one-dimensionality, is a True Believer who has been Born Again and is In Love with the Little Lady. Capital letters seem appropriate to descriptions of Bob’s life and thought: He’s a capital-letter kind of guy. He is also the youngest of the three lube shills manning the hospitality suite; between Bob and the predatory, monstrous Larry Mann (Spacey) stands only poor, dim Phil Cooper (Danny DeVito), who seems to have given up, pulped into sad resignation by the propulsive power of Larry’s rantings. Larry vs. Bob: It’s like Claggart vs. Billy Budd.

The older man, cynical, corrupt, exhausted, secular, is inflamed by the younger’s earnest, stubborn simplicity. Why, the kid won’t even exchange lewd comments about the Wichita hookers! What kind of a salesman is that? Giving this drama of souls some point is the tantalizing presence of the Big Kahuna himself. Would this be God? Or would it be a manufacturer who, if he buys Bob, Phil and Larry’s brand of lubricant, will indemnify their firm from failure?

Whatever, his enthusiasm for their endeavors is necessary for their survival. Will he show? This is the focus of the first two-thirds of the very short film. Busy busy busy, as they make sure the pretzels are always fresh, the bourbon brown and iced, the cheese uncontaminated by green bacteria (at their level, cheese should be a certain strident orange, the color of an airburst nuclear device at around 5,000 feet above and 5,000 degrees hot over Moscow) and, of course, the Triscuits perfectly stacked into little pyramids.

During this time, Larry picks on Bob. Then it evolves that the man Bob yapped with when he wasn’t being picked on by Larry was the actual Big Feller; and Bob is sent out to catch up with him again, while poor Larry and even poorer Phil (he’s the executive in charge of Triscuit piling) must wait, their fates in the hands of someone who actually believes in God, Virginity and Moral Order and, even worse, Doesn’t Drink.

The movie isn’t about anything except acting, and although the acting it shows is brilliant, it makes exactly the point that is the opposite of the point it thought it was making: Acting isn’t enough. THE BIG KAHUNA(91 minutes) is rated R for hostility in language and body posture. © Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Weekend Journal Film Review) 

The Big Kahuna by Joe Morgenstern
May 28, 2000

“The Big Kahuna” was shot in a mere 6 days, while Kevin Spacey was rehearsing for his Broadway production of “The Iceman Cometh.” This admirable little film, based on a single-set play by Roger Rueff, was directed by John Swanbeck and stars Mr. Spacey as Larry, a self-critical, smooth-talking salesman — of industrial lubricants. No longer young, Larry is “suddenly very conscious of the lateness of things.” His older colleague, Phil (Danny DeVito), is weary of the business, though seemingly resigned to his fate. Presiding over a tacky hospitality suite at a trade convention in Wichita, the two men watch in horror as their company’s young researcher, a born-again Christian named Bob (Peter Facinelli), hooks an important client — the “big kahuna” — but neglects to reel him in. Watching the film, one inevitably thinks of David Mamet and Arthur Miller. Yet “The Big Kahuna” has a voice of its own, and splendid actors to articulate it. (We know about Messrs. Spacey and DeVito; the discovery is Mr. Facinelli.) The three men argue about God and Mammon, love and loss, struggle and loyalty. Finally one of them emerges as a stirring apostle of honest human connection. You’ll never guess who.