The movies are excellent at exploring moral labyrinths; most fans could explain not only the dilemmas facing cops, lawyers, and doctors in their work, but debate when the Prime Directive can be violated or whether Superman's first duty is to Lois Lane or to Metropolis. Only rarely, however, have the movies explored the tough situations of my own life, as a Christian striving to live his faith openly in this world.The Big Kahuna is one of those rarities. It tells of a young Christian at his first sales convention, teamed with two more experienced (read: cynical and weary) salesmen who aim to land a huge account with the title character. The rookie, though, is more interested in forging relationships with those he meets than in shaking loose their pocket change. In doing so, he reveals an honest faith that transcends Sundays. This alone would be noteworthy for Christian audiences, yet The Big Kahuna mines even deeper, probing the moral pitfalls that a person of faith must face.

Hello, My Name Is Irrelevant

Larry Mann (Kevin Spacey) is a born salesman, blunt and confrontational. He's selling industrial lubricants at the moment, but the product is irrelevant to the game. Larry lives for the hustle, the strike; as he explains it to team newcomer Bob Walker (Peter Facinelli), the people at these sales conventions are nothing more than"functions" of their companies, important for their nametags only. Bob resists this mentality, both as a Christian and as a sales neophyte, and instead converses with unimportant people while tending bar. Afterward, he shares with his uninterested colleagues how he consoled a man whose dog had just died, listening to the man's life traced backward through the series of dogs he'd owned.While Bob's reluctance to depersonalize others is certainly admirable, and follows the footsteps of Christ, it does not place him above reproach. Does Bob not have a moral obligation to do his best to sell industrial lubricants, having been paid by his company to do so? More to the point, doesn't Bob's reluctance to dabble in the sales game display a contempt for Larry's hard work—in effect devaluing him?The situation becomes even more sticky when Larry learns that Bob used the dog-lover's grief as a segue to share his faith in Jesus. Evidence suggests that the businessman was open to this talk of the spiritual (we don't actually witness the conversation, so it's hard to say for sure), but to Larry it sounds like a salesmanship routine. To avoid being treated like a target as well, he goes on the attack, teasing and even insulting Bob for his faith. Bob lashes back, and here we are reminded to be careful whom we write off as our enemy. It turns out that the belligerent Larry is actually open to spiritual matters. He and his partner, Phil Cooper (Danny DeVito), share a meaningful conversation about God while Bob is out of the room. But Bob is too busy defending his piety to recognize this.

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A Taste for Humble Pie

Bob is more kind to Phil, the older and more worn-out colleague. When Phil starts reading a Penthouse in front of him, Bob doesn't sermonize or even ask that Phil not read it in front of him; he uses it as an opportunity to engage in weighty conversation. He asks Phil how his wife feels about his reading the magazine, and learns that he is getting divorced. Sensing Phil's melancholy over his stalled professional and personal lives, Bob makes himself an apprentice of sorts, listening to Phil's advice on everything from career direction to attaining character.The theme of character returns later in the film, when Phil sees how poorly Bob treats Larry during the bout of self-righteousness. Phil explains to an unremorseful Bob that true character is the ability to regret—facing how you have wronged others, accepting your own hurtfulness, and experiencing sorrow. Then, he says,"honesty comes from within and tattoos itself all over your face." Although Bob doesn't like to hear it, Phil is right; wouldn't Bob better testify to Christ's grace if he openly expressed his own need for it?Since he doesn't, Larry sees Bob as only a set of values instead of a person. He even makes an offhand jab at Bob's marriage by asking if he really loves his wife or if their principles got married and they came along for the ride. A harsh statement, perhaps, but it was the moment in the film that most convicted me. I recognized how I've had far too many friendships that developed around shared values, only to dissolve as one or the other of us changed. I wonder, now, if my largely conditional love was actually a hindrance to my friends' growth, trapping them in my preconceptions.

Light to Travel By

The Big Kahuna is significant not only because it challenges us to live more authentic lives of faith, but it does so without creating a flimsy, straw man Christian to illustrate the need. Despite the many ways in which Bob falls short, he remains an admirable character who is grounded in his convictions. He is not ashamed of the gospel, either in sharing or in living it. Although he might have more to learn about humility, he does not use his inexperience as an excuse to play wallflower. When the grief-stricken dog owner wonders aloud about mortality and eternity, Bob is ready to give a reason for the hope that he has (1 Peter 3:15).I hunger for more stories like Bob's or LAPD officer Jim Kurring's (John C. Reilly) in Magnolia—evangelical laymen who struggle to balance their profession with their duty to God. Though flawed and awkward, these characters shine light on the moral conundrums Christians face today. They remind me of my need to strive for perfection, the certainty I'll fall short, and the abundance of God's grace that bridges the gap.

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Steve Lansingh, who writes the weekly Film Forum department for, is editor, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.

Related Elsewhere

The Big Kahuna's official site offers information about the film, the cast and crew, trailers and clips, and a few links.In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert noted,"Now here's a funny thing. This movie premiered last January at Sundance. A lot has been written about it since then. You can read about the actors, the dialogue, the convention, the Kahuna, the industrial lubricants. But you can search the reviews in vain for any mention of Jesus Christ. Most of the reviewers seem to have forgotten that Bob is born again. Maybe it never registered."Steve Lansingh's Film Forum rounded up what Christian film critics said about The Big Kahuna. The article included comments from The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks, Ted Baehr's Movieguide, Phil Boatwright of the Dove Foundation, a thread at the OnFilm discussion group, Holly McClure and Michael Elliot of, and Preview's John Adair.

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Directed By
John Swanbeck
Run Time
1 hour 30 minutes
Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Peter Facinelli
Theatre Release
May 19, 2000
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