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The Big Kahuna

Perhaps Arthur Miller can be blamed for this bizarre view the American theater has of salesmen. Over a half-century ago, Mr. Miller wrote a very, very good play about a salesman named Willy Loman that was based (according to his autobiography) on his uncle. Death of a Salesman's Loman family did not speak in a way that is even remotely natural — as Mr. Miller has said, "There are some people who simply don't speak the way people speak." A quarter-century ago, another playwright named David Mamet also wrote a very, very good play about salesmen, titled Glengarry Glen Ross. The characters in that play also spoke in a style that sounds unnatural (and vastly more expletive-laced), which is a stylistic trademark of Mr. Mamet's. While there are significant differences, both plays use the oeuvre of the salesman as a platform from which characters pontificate about life, the work ethic, and man's place in the scheme of things. Now former Illinois chemical engineer-turned playwright Roger Rueff offers us The Big Kahuna, another piece about unnaturally speaking salesmen discussing the meaning of life, which stars Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito and Peter Facinelli. The three play industrial-lubricant salesmen sent to a convention in Wichita in the hopes that they will land a Big Account. Phil (DeVito) is burnt-out, in the process of divorce, and contemplating a career change — or worse. Larry (Spacey), Phil's partner for 15 years, is aggressive, cynical and passionate. The new guy is Bob (Facinelli), who is young, newly married, and devoutly Christian. Chicago theater director John Swanbeck offers us a simple, filmed version of the play, all of which takes place in a mid-class hotel's hospitality suite (the original theater piece was even called Hospitality Suite) and moves the actors around the room as much as he can, given those limitations. But it never transcends the experience of a filmed play, and a mediocre play at that — The Big Kahuna is stagy, talky and artificial. Lacking the pathos and heart of Death of a Salesman or the edgy, cynical anger of Glengarry Glen Ross, one is left to wonder just what the point was of making The Big Kahuna in the first place. Spacey chews scenery like nobody's business throughout the first two-thirds of the film (he produced the movie, which must have been as a favor to friends — he's played this role before, and better) and Facinelli does a fine, believable job as the annoying, clueless greenhorn. Once you get past the excruciatingly stilted and dull first 30 minutes, DeVito settles into what is actually an incredible performance as he becomes the story's voice of wisdom and true moral guidance. But none of that changes that fact that there's no there there. The Big Kahuna's resultant achievement is to make the viewer long for the works of Mssrs. Miller and Mamet. Universal's DVD edition is presented with a clean 1.85:1 widescreen transfer and audio in DD 5.1. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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