Static 'Kahuna' an A-list character study of traveling salesmen trying to save their careers
Kevin Spacey is such a subtle and ingenious actor that he can effectively hint at a character's entire personality in seemingly insignificant mannerism. A smirk reveals a cop who has obscured his honor in "L.A. Confidential." A heavy-lidded sideways glance reveals cheeky, elusive impudence in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." His blissful but apathetic gawking at Mena Suvari in "American Beauty" says it all about where Lester Burnham is coming from.
In the case of "The Big Kahuna," is the way he chews gum.
When Spacey first comes on screen in this low-budget, one-room talkie about the meaningless lives of three traveling salesmen, all he does is walk across the lobby of a Wichita hotel chewing his gum. But from in the brief moment we know who this guy is. He's a closer. He's an aggressive salesman who can read his customers' faces and adjust his pitch on the fly. He's a guy who puts on a cocky, confident front, but behind it he's always a little worried about losing his job.
And you can tell all this from the way he chews his gum -- mouth wide open, snapping it quickly and sharply like he's eating something much harder -- while his eyes survey the room looking for clients to shmooze.
In "Kahuna" he's holed up in a hotel suite during a trade convention with two fellow industrial lubricant hoofers -- disenchanted veteran Phil (Danny DeVito) and nervous greenhorn Bob (Peter Facinelli, "Supernova") -- as they wait for a chance to pitch a major new client.
Adapted by Roger Rueff from his play "Hospitality Suite," "The Big Kahuna" is a loquacious character study of these three men's desires, motivations and fears. The plot, which eventually finds the big, career-making or -breaking sale resting uncomfortably in the hands of the inexperienced Bob, is only a backdrop designed to showcase modest tour de force performances based in sharp, idiosyncratic dialogue.
Larry (Spacey) is a guy who hides his own insecurities by pushing peoples buttons just to see what happens. Since the threesome have a lot of time to kill, it's not long before he's ruffling his compatriots feathers for his own amusement.
Having spent countless tedious days with Larry in nondescript hotel rooms like this one -- sustaining themselves on hors d'oeuvres and cigarettes -- Phil lets most of these barbs roll off him. As played by DeVito with broken-down body language that imparts his deep spiritual dissatisfaction, he has other things on his mind.
But the reticent Bob -- who it turns out is a devout Baptist more interested in saving souls than in the church of the wholesale bottom line -- is considerably more flustered. Unfortunately Facinelli isn't afforded as much depth to play as the others.
Directed by stage vet John Swanbeck, the movie is left a little wanting by its dry source material and static, low-end, stage-style production values, but Spacey and DeVito deliver such layered, perceptive and detailed performances that their mere presence raises the picture to a recommendable level.