[Screen It]

(2000) (Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito) (R)

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Drama: Three representatives from an industrial lubricant company - two of which are sales veterans and old friends - clash as they hope to land a big account during a marketing promotion in a hotel's hospitality suite.
In the small hospitality suite of a Wichita hotel, veteran salesmen and longtime friends Larry Mann (KEVIN SPACEY) and Phil Cooper (DANNY DEVITO) have arrived along with Bob Walker (PETER FACINELLI), a young and relatively new employee at Lodestar Laboratories, to pitch their industrial lubricant products to prospective buyers.

As the men prepare the suite for the upcoming reception, their differences immediately become apparent. While Bob appears na´ve but eager, Phil seems worn out with the business and the life of being a salesmen. Larry, on the other hand, is eager to make his pitch to their biggest potential client, dubbed "The Big Kahuna," but is otherwise a sardonic man with no qualms about speaking his mind or belittling others with his acerbic wit and comments.

As a result, the conflicting personalities and behavior of the three men soon comes to a head as the evening wears on and Larry realizes that Bob has strong religious convictions and isn't above discussing them with others. When their efforts of landing the Big Kahuna seemingly fail, the tensions rise and the differences between the men soon leads to some unpredictable revelations and behavior.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Preceding Thomas Edison's late 19th century invention of the kinetoscope -- that allowed stories to be told via a rapid succession of individual images (in other words, as "motion pictures") - by a few thousand years, the theater certainly has time on its side, but both it and its cinematic cousin have their strong points that keep both in business.

Of course, plays usually have a more intimate feel to them due to the presence of live human beings (rather than projected images of them). Until relatively recently, however, they've been rather limited in what they could present. Films, on the other hand, can go anywhere and show most anything, but often given off a much different feel than their proscenium-based relatives.

Although the two occasionally meet and exchange formats - most every big Broadway play has been filmed while pictures such as "The Lion King" have been retrofitted for the stage -- more often than not there's a good reason the two usually appear in the form they do.

That's rather apparent in director John Swanbeck's version of "The Big Kahuna." Based on screenwriter Roger Rueff's own stage play, "Hospitality Suite," and marking both of their feature film debuts, the film can't shake its theatrical origins and underpinnings. While that might not prove bothersome to some viewers - especially those who enjoy the cinematic adaptations of similar "talk fests" from the likes of David Mamet - for those who like big, open movies, this one may begin to feel a bit too confined for their tastes and perhaps even come off as a bit claustrophobic to some.

This is despite Swanbeck and cinematographer Anastas Michos' ("Keeping the Faith," "Man on the Moon") efforts to keep things as lively as possible. Although a random scene here and there occurs elsewhere, the vast majority of the film takes place in just one hospitality suite (and as one character complains, it's not very big).

As such, the filmmakers constantly move the camera around their trio of performers, rearrange their "staging," and even change the lighting from scene to scene. Despite their efforts, however, the picture more often than not feels like nothing more than a filmed theatrical presentation. Of course, it's not a literal presentation of that comment, but viewers will certainly realize that the theatrics, if you pardon the pun, will clearly be kept to a minimum.

Like any small stage play and running off the old notion of triangular relationships (whether in love, business, or even a college dorm room) usually being a bad idea, especially in tight confines or quarters, the film sets up and then plays off the standard, conflict-inducing arrangement of three characters with differing lifestyles, beliefs and behavior.

As with most such plays, the film contains conveniently timed entrances and exits that continually create alternating pairings of the characters when all three aren't together. By doing so, the filmmakers allow for the necessary delivery of exposition and other information, but surprisingly don't play any two characters or combinations thereof against the lone other. Instead, each character is their own little island here, with the three pretty much standing alone in their discussions, confrontations and arguments with and about the others.

That said, one would imagine or expect that something worthwhile would come out of the proceedings. Unfortunately, and despite its intentions, the film never really delves into anything particularly deep or substantial, or ultimately reveals anything new about the world of sales or even just the human condition.

Although the three characters obviously portray different stages in a person's life (one being young and na´ve but confident, another coming off as bitter and angry about being middle aged, and the last being worn out and reexamining life), and notwithstanding the film's posturing, the picture ends without leaving the viewer in the condition of feeling that they learned or experienced something meaningful.

What they will feel, however, is that they've witnessed an otherwise solidly constructed script - peppered with good bits of dialogue - as well as strong performances from what are essentially the only substantial roles it contains. Following up his Oscar winning take as an angst-ridden professional facing a midlife crisis in last year's "American Beauty," Kevin Spacey ("L.A. Confidential," "The Negotiator") delivers another commanding performance. Playing the seasoned but sarcastic salesmen who might as well be Lester Burnham's brother or cousin, Spacey gives the character the appropriate edginess necessary for the role. Some might complain that his character never really develops that much, but I believe that's the point.

Appearing in the second corner is Danny DeVito ("Drowning Mona," "Man on the Moon") as the worn out salesmen who's transcended the midlife crisis to enter the retrospective, introspectional stage of his life. While DeVito is probably best known for his comedic talents, he's actually quite a gifted dramatic performer and he delivers a wonderfully understated performance here.

Finishing out the disparate trio is Peter Facinelli ("Supernova," "Can't Hardly Wait") as the young and somewhat na´ve-sounding man who turns out to have more and more of a backbone as the story progresses. Although he's overshadowed by his more prominent and better-known costars, Facinelli does a good job playing his character.

While viewers will probably be impressed by their performances and interaction with each other, many might feel as I did that the script needed a bit more oomph to help it transcend not only its stage-like physical limitations, but also the salesman-based material that's already been explored in the likes of "Death of a Salesman," "Glengarry Glen Ross" and other such films. Good, but not terribly compelling or intriguing enough to make it great, "The Big Kahuna" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed April 19, 2000 / Posted May 12, 2000

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