Universal // 1999 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // August 28th, 2000
Every sale begins with a smile.
At its heart, The Big Kahuna is a stage play where three men ponder, talk about, and muse upon their lives, their future, and their very existence all within the modest confines of a Wichita, Kansas, hotel suite. Universal gets high marks for technical presentation but loses a lot for its next to zero extra content.
Adapted for the screen by Richard Rueff from his own play "Hospitality Suite," it is quickly evident that The Big Kahuna is more or less a straight stage to film conversion. For some of you (including yours truly), you might enjoy it as you would a night at your local playhouse, but I know that others who partake of the cinema want a film that takes advantage of cinematic potential, such as Branagh's Henry V, which is undeniably a stage play at heart, yet it uses camera movement, editing, and the greater scope of a film to good use. If you are in this latter camp, then you are likely to be disappointed with The Big Kahuna. Rookie director John Swanbeck seems to have done little to give this film the cinematic gloss it deserved. On the other hand, The Big Kahuna got me thinking about some serious questions afterward, which counts as an achievement in my book.
Whether or not you end up liking The Big Kahuna will probably depend on whether or not you are a fan of Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. The film rises or falls upon their acting shoulders, as they are in nearly every second of the film. I have always been a fan of Kevin Spacey (Swimming With Sharks, L.A. Confidential, American Beauty), and make no exception here. He handles the snappy dialogue with aplomb, conveying a delicious sense of attitude, yet there are moments where he speaks not a word, staring off into space, and somehow you know (or at least suspect) what Larry is thinking.
Danny DeVito (Ruthless People, Get Shorty, Man on the Moon) is equally top-notch, showing us a seemingly effortless performance as a tired, worn down salesman who clings to an inner spark of humanity and hope, and who sees in greenhorn Bob Walker a long lost echo of his own self. Peter Fascinelli holds his own as the neophyte employee, but there is nothing so unique or compelling about his performance. I felt that many a competent actor could have filled his role with similar results.
The anamorphic video is excellent, particularly for a small budget film. Sharpness is somewhere between good and great and the picture is quite clean with only minor blips and a light haze of film grain. The mostly earth toned color palette for The Big Kahuna is limited, but those chromatic shades that do appear are adequate if perhaps muted. While it may not impress our jaded eyes (spoiled by the lush colors and pristine prints of big budget modern films), the transfer does not distract from the fine acting, which is itself a laudable goal.
The audio is the least of The Big Kahuna's makeup, simply because this is a nearly 100% dialogue-intensive film. There is precious little for anything beside the center channel to do, aside from the occasional quiet score and the music (including Baz Luhrmann's song "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) Mix" that plays over the closing credits). As is an absolute requirement for a film of this type, the dialogue is clearly understood.
Phil Cooper (Danny DeVito) is a road-weary salesman for an industrial lubricants firm, Lodestar Laboratories, who finds himself in a hotel in Wichita, Kansas, for some sort of a convention. Partnered with fresh-faced Bob Walker (Peter Fascinelli), a green research & development rep, the pair are set to ply convention attendees with liquor and hors d'oeuvres in the hopes of selling their product. Ready, that is, as soon as Phil's colleague and best friend Larry Mann (Kevin Spacey) arrives to complete the team.
Once these three men have assembled, the unifying plot device of The Big Kahuna is the factory owner whose need for industrial lubricants would mean financial glory for Lodestar and a success beyond imagining for these men, and, hence, make him "El Grande Kahuna." Our trio waits for hours for this potential savior to arrive, only to realize that Bob had already met the "Kahuna" earlier in the day before their prey skipped off to an invitation-only party -- and gave greenhorn Bob an engraved invitation.
Naturally, Phil and Larry realize that their only chance to haul in their catch is to send Bob after him, and pray. A lot. When Bob returns after an interminable wait, Phil and Larry find out whether their future holds merely frustration, financial paradise, or something in between.
That is the basic outline of the plot, but what fills up the waiting for Larry, waiting for "El Grande Kahuna," and then waiting for Bob, is talk, talk, talk. About relationships, marriage, religion, business, and philosophy in a wide ranging discourse. You learn quite a bit about each character, their viewpoint in life, and core motivations before The Big Kahuna ends. Phil and Larry are true company salesmen, but when Bob has his time with "El Grande Kahuna" he seems more intent on discussing his Christian faith, which fuels understandable conflict with his more capitalist inclined colleagues.
Shortcomings in the technical presentation could be excused and understood given the modest origins of The Big Kahuna, yet it is in the area of extra content where Universal disappoints. Not only is there none of the true bonus content (featurettes or commentary tracks), but we do not even get the minimum Universal package of extras that we have come to expect. A few pages of production notes and a bio/filmography section would have been very welcome! As it is, The Big Kahuna features only its full frame, grainy and soft theatrical trailer. Sigh.
If a dialogue-heavy, lightly adapted stage play with solid acting craft appeals to you, then The Big Kahuna is worth your time as a rental, though a purchase ($26.98 retail) will only appeal to devoted fans. Otherwise, you probably should look elsewhere for your evening's entertainment.
The Big Kahuna is acquitted, at least to this Judge's tastes, but Universal is named as an unindicted co-conspirator for its deficient attention to extra content.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer