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Pity the salesman, capitalism’s quintessential dupe. He neither enjoys the satisfaction of producing a commodity nor retains more than a fraction of the profit of selling it. Behind him, a slug’s trail of commission-foraging; ahead, the certainty of being replaced by someone younger, cheaper, and more energetic.
A half-century ago, Arthur Miller attempted to elevate this expendable middleman to the status of tragic hero. Although Death of a Salesman has come to be regarded as a modern classic, it ultimately fails because tragedy requires that descent begin from a lofty plane, whereas the fall of a salesman is about as momentous as slipping off a curb. (Willy Loman’s wife’s clunky “Attention must be paid” speech betrays Miller’s own anxiety about trying to fob off a peddler as a tragic figure. Shakespeare never begs us to care about Othello or Lear.) More recently, the stage and screen versions of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross one-upped Miller by depicting a real estate office fully staffed with similarly desperate pitchmen at the ends of their tethers.
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Compared with Miller’s and Mamet’s financially and spiritually tormented hucksters, The Big Kahuna’s three salesmen appear relatively content, largely because screenwriter Roger Rueff, a former chemical engineer who adapted his own play, Hospitality Suite, isn’t interested in the probing questions posed, however clumsily, by his predecessors. His modest aim is the construction of a well-crafted three-hander in which each one-dimensional character is allotted a big scene to prove that he’s actually two-dimensional. It’s not surprising to learn that Hospitality Suite, which premiered in Costa Mesa, Calif., in 1992, has never been produced east of Chicago.
Actor Kevin Spacey and veteran stage director John Swanbeck were among the first to champion Rueff’s play, setting up a reading that led to the playwright’s obtaining an agent and the California premiere production. An ensemble player in the screen version of Glengarry Glen Ross, Spacey produced The Big Kahuna and generously assigned himself the juiciest role. Memories of Spacey’s presence in Mamet’s bitter, profane drama reinforce our awareness of the flatness and predictability of Rueff’s writing.
Although other actors appear in several party scenes, The Big Kahuna contains just three speaking roles—a trio of industrial-lubricant marketing reps attending a manufacturer’s convention in Wichita, Kan. Their goal is to lure the titular character, a Gary, Ind., business magnate, to their 16th-floor hospitality suite and forge a deal with him. Rueff’s salesmen are schematically designed as representatives of three stages of a single individual’s life. Phil (Danny DeVito), the team’s recently divorced senior member, is emotionally and physically exhausted. Larry, an archetypal Spacey character, is a blunt-spoken, caustic wheeler-dealer. Smooth-faced Bob (Peter Facinelli), fresh from college and attending his first business convention, is a paragon of naive self-righteousness, given to earnest discourses on Jesus and the sanctity of marriage.
Trapped in their cramped, nondescript hotel suite with a cheese ball, carrot sticks, and a view of the Midwest flatlands, these men await the arrival of the Godotlike Big Kahuna. To pass the time, they indulge in a talkfest that exposes their beliefs and vulnerabilities. Phil turns out to be smarter and more resilient than he initially seems. Larry reveals some unexpected middle-American values and compassion lurking beneath his cynical facade. Bob’s virtuousness and spirituality are tested and found to be less Christly than he supposes.
Several hours of this gabby stuff might be tolerable at the Little Lake Summer Playhouse, especially if there were a cool breeze wafting in from the water and you had a friend in the cast. But being stuck in a hotel room with this voluble trio for the better part of 90 minutes makes for a claustrophobic cinematic experience. Given the shallowness of Rueff’s writing, the film’s sole point of interest is the acting. In the most cliched role—the burnt-out huckster—DeVito nevertheless makes the strongest impression. Unlike the characterizations of his compatriots, his performance deepens as the movie progresses. Spacey socks home some snide verbal gags, but he’s grown so accustomed to projecting facetiousness that he no longer seems capable of sounding a sincere note when required. Facinelli fumbles his role, enacting Bob’s prudish religiosity so childishly as to make even a Bible-thumper like Kathie Lee Gifford roll her eyes in disbelief.
As cinema, The Big Kahuna barely exists. Swanbeck keeps his actors moving and shoots from a variety of angles in a failed attempt to instill visual vitality in a one-set play. The characters’ conformist business wardrobe of dark suits, blue shirts, and subtly patterned neckties offers little distraction, nor does the brownish hotel suite, which makes even the characters deem drab. Kalina Ivanov’s set is festooned with symbolic mirrors, overused as stagy frames to effect self-reflection, and clocks, to suggest time’s inexorability.
The Big Kahuna is the sort of complacent drama beloved by high school English teachers, overflowing with bogus humanist uplift and bereft of poetry and imagination. Swanbeck has observed of Rueff’s characters: “By the end, they’ve each learned important lessons about who they are and how they relate to others and are changed—for the better.” I’m afraid that I didn’t learn any lessons from watching it—or emerge from the theater a better, changed person. But I was left with a puzzling question: Why is this movie about three heterosexual men so littered with allusions to circle jerks, buggery, and other homosexual activities? This anomaly is bound to fuel the gossip about Spacey’s sexual orientation that the recent Oscar winner has been laboring so strenuously to quell. CP