Despite the talent that's been assembled for "The Big Kahuna," monitoring its verbal sparring, jousting and arguing isn't as enticing a prospect as one might expect.
Adapted by Roger Rueff from his stage play "Hospitality Suite" and shot in two weeks on a shoestring budget, director John Swanbeck's film places us at eye level with three spiritually wounded middle-class salesmen. Larry (Kevin Spacey) is a bitter, hollowed-out shell of a man committed only to closing the deal at hand, while Phil (Danny DeVito) is tired and uninspired, ready to quit his job (and maybe his life). Bob (Peter Facinelli), the fresh-faced new hire, is forever attempting to steer conversations toward the big issues -- life, death, God -- and offer a handy, one-size-fits-all religious solution.
Their frankly wearying exchanges are abetted by staginess and claustrophobia, brought on in part by the director's decision to largely limit the action to a two-room suite on the 16th floor of a hotel in Wichita, Kan. There, Larry, Phil and Bob snipe, share, drink, smoke, curse, bond a little and hint at a coming moment of truth. But will it ever arrive?
It doesn't help that the film's theme -- which dates back to Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt" and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," at least -- is so tired. Spacey has walked similar turf himself, playing motor-mouthed cynics with holes in their souls in American Beauty, "Hurlyburly" and "Glengarry Glen Ross."
Still, there's much to admire about the bravado of Spacey's bracing work. And DeVito imbues his character with a quiet dignity that occasionally steals attention away from Spacey's showier role. Facinelli (Can't Hardly Wait) taps into the correct mixture of innocence, optimism and cluelessness.
Swanbeck's focus is clear from the outset: He shows us men in suits (shot from the shoulders down) who engage in seemingly endless rounds of hand-shaking. It's one in a series of rituals that are ultimately meaningless, if mandatory in the business world. Conventions held in often colorless locales are also part of the process. Phil seems to be going through the motions for the umpteenth time as he prepares Lodestar Laboratories' hospitality suite for the arrival of his two colleagues and an important client dubbed "El Kahuna Grande," who may sign a career-making contract for the purchase of industrial lubricants.
Bob, with the company a mere six months, shows up to share pleasantries with Phil. The sparks begin to fly as Larry makes his grand entrance, complaining about the size of the suite and the quality of the hors d'oeuvres, and then ripping into the rookie, Bob. In short order, he assails the reputation of the young man's mentor, questions his sexual orientation and jokes about his Baptist family values.
"I don't smoke," Larry tells Phil. "You don't drink, and Bob here wouldn't think about lusting after another woman. Between the three of us, we're practically Jesus."
It's a pleasure to hear Spacey chomp into the clever, occasionally insightful dialogue with which the intelligent script is spiked. The rhythm between him and DeVito (their bantering and bickering recalls that of an old married couple) is duly impressive.
But "The Big Kahuna" wears out its welcome around the halfway mark, just as we begin to suspect that its long, talky wind-up might not lead to a genuine payoff, and that these three lives will remain unaltered in the wake of emotional tumult. That's hardly what Larry, Phil and Bob would consider closing a sale.