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Review: 'The Big Kahuna' sells itself short

movie strip

(CNN) -- "The Big Kahuna," a "small" adaptation of Roger Rueff's play about all-American salesmanship, boasts razor-sharp dialogue and nicely modulated work by a couple of great big movie stars.

Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito play Larry and Phil, longtime industrial-lubricant salesmen who are in something of a crisis. They have to snag their most important client during a boring convention in Wichita, Kansas, and their only hope is a young, untested co-worker (Peter Facinelli) who'd much rather tell people about his love for Jesus than convince them to buy his products.

This is a pretty funny movie that barely exists outside of its performances, a major snag that's part-and-parcel of adapting stage works for the screen.

Technical aspects hamper film

Traditionally, filmed plays take little advantage of the visual juxtapositions and rhythmic elements that define cinema. That's why they stopped calling movies photoplays once filmmakers like D.W. Griffith and F.W. Murnau developed the form's language some 80 years ago. There's a lot going on in the movies -- editing, camera placement and camera movement, among other things -- and they have a monumental effect on audiences, even if people don't realize to what they're responding as they watch a film. Casual viewers usually just let the film-going experience wash over them; if it doesn't work, it doesn't work.

The only things working in "The Big Kahuna" are the script and the actors, although the script, with its continual stream of single-location dialogue, is definitely a product of the theater

Spacey, who knows a good part when he sees it, is a brilliant performer who nonetheless is on the verge of turning his work into an elegant cliche. Larry is the usual Spacey go-getter. He brandishes a nonchalantly devastating wit and thinks that he can see right through any person he encounters. He tells himself that he's a winner, while simultaneously knowing that he's only winning the small game that he's chosen to play.

DeVito's Phil is recently divorced. He's exceedingly quiet and gentle, but it's easy to see that he's devastated by the failure of the key relationship in his life. Phil doesn't appreciate it when his good buddy Larry takes to dismantling the unprotected psyche of their fledgling associate, Bob (Facinelli.) His fatherly relationship with Bob is an unexpected, tender element of a story that focuses mostly on Larry's unctuous line of chatter.

Facinelli has the least demanding role of the three actors. His work consists mostly of guile and great big smiles. He's so slight, in fact, it's not altogether convincing when Bob's spirituality starts to influence Phil.

Good actors

But revelations are an afterthought. The real story lies in Larry's combative philosophizing and increasingly angry sarcasm.

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There's something inherently defeatist about filming a stage production. Mike Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966), for instance, made a relatively evocative transition to the screen, but even that well-received picture starts to feel stagnant as you watch it. At one point, Albee's characters are made to hop in a car and drive to a pool hall to continue their seemingly endless argument, a ploy that doesn't open up the story so much as it reminds you that these people seem trapped in their own living room.

Rueff's characters are trapped in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with their hotel suite. This strain of machismo builds its own prisons. But too many plays and films have already covered that ground, and to much more provocative effect.

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You probably don't need to run out to a theater to see "The Big Kahuna," but it's a definite video rental when you feel like watching a couple of first-rate actors sink their teeth into piles of meaty dialogue. You're far more likely to buy what Spacey and company are selling from the comfort of your own living room.


There's well-utilized profanity in "The Big Kahuna," and some people may be deeply offended by Larry's attitudes toward Jesus and the Bible. But even good Christians might get a rueful laugh out of it. Rated R. A very slim 90 minutes.



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RELATED SITES:
Official 'The Big Kahuna' site
Lions Gate Films

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