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Entries in Big Kahuna/The [1999] (1)

Sunday
May082011

The Big Kahuna (1999) Home Video Review

The Gospel According to Lube

Were it not for Danny DeVito's wonderful, sad eyes and the manic shifts in Kevin Spacey's face, one could fully enjoy The Big Kahuna by simply listening to it.  As directed by John Swanbeck and written for the screen by Roger Rueff (adapting his own stageplay), this story of three businessmen holed up in a Wichita hotel during a convention is all about establishing characters through dialogue; and the beautiful corporate/spiritual poetry of Rueff's words make The Big Kahuna a lyrical hybrid between an acting workshop and a self-help seminar.

Long-time friends and co-workers Larry (Spacey) and Phil (DeVito) have been tasked with luring the president of a large company up to their hospitality suite once the convention's after-hours party scene kicks in; joining them is newcomer Bob (Peter Facinelli), an earnest twenty-something Baptist who would rather witness to his fellow businesspeople than discuss the merits of his company's brand of industrial lubricants.

Rueff uses his characters as platforms for different points of view that he wants to see clash: Larry, Phil and Bob aren't so much people as walking, talking thought experiments.  It's important to understand this going into the film because, as with many of Kevin Smith's films, the characters have conversations that no one has ever had in ways that people don't talk.  Depending on your tolerance for such methods, you'll either turn off the movie in the opening exchange about pornography, or you'll see it through to the brutal, final discussion about the difference (or lack thereof) between salesmen and evangelists.

Sure, the words are overly contrived in places, but that doesn't mean they're any less effective or funny. Spacey storms into the picture at about the ten-minute mark as a loudmouth tornado, berating Phil for having reserved a dinky suite and ridiculing Bob's admiration for a hack that they both work with. Spacey gets the best zingers, and DeVito gets most of the best heartfelt moments: Phil spends much of the movie contemplating suicide, an after-effect of a divorce and a career that no longer means anything to him.

From my plot summary, you might think that Bob is the easy mark, the religious cartoon character that Rueff aims to use as a punching bag. But Facinelli plays him as a quietly confident man of conviction who's not afraid to match wits and judgments against secular pervert Larry.

The climax, in which Bob must answer for his very interesting way of dealing with the elusive, important client, raises some tough questions about the role of personal convictions (religious and otherwise) in the workplace; indeed, whether or not people remain people once they agree to work for a corporation. You may think that an absurd question with an easy answer, but it's presented in such a way as to make the audience examine--just for a moment--what they consider valuable.  Rueff, speaking through his surrogates, posits that there's real danger in coasting through life with a fixed set of beliefs, and that even the most well-intentioned people can negatively affect those around them without frequent reflection and consideration of opposing points of view.

The Big Kahuna presents the dark side of careerism that Office Space parodied (both films came out in 1999).  Like Mike Judge's comedy, Swanbeck's film is a good litmus test for where one is at any given point in their working life.  Most of us start out as naive and eager as Bob; eventually we become slick, scrappy professionals like Larry; and, if we stay in one place too long, we become Phil--too tired to care, and too old to start over.  Rueff's script shares a central theme in common with Judge's, though, and that's the idea that it's never too late to change course.  It's difficult, yes, but they argue that empowerment is fully within our grasp;  be it the ability to transition from software engineer to construction worker or shut the door on suicidal impulses, we're the masters of our own destinies.

Regardless of where you come down on any of these issues, I suggest giving The Big Kahuna a try.  The performances are uniformly top-notch, and the end-credits use of "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen" will undoubtedly be the first time you'll hear it without rolling your eyes.  Regardless of whether or not you buy what he's selling, it's hard to deny that Rueff delivers a unique, offensive, and challenging sermon.