The Big Kahuna
Directed by John Swanbeck
Lions Gate Films/Universal
The Big Kahuna playfully engages the mind in the moral quest of the three souls who have speaking parts: two worldly marketing reps and their otherworldly research technician, an earnest young man of evangelical conviction. The Big Kahuna had typically brief runs in arthouse cinemas earlier this year, and is now available on video.
The two salesmen hope to reel in a big account by cornering a corporate VIP (the big kahuna) at a convention in Wichita, Kansas. The natural fissures among the trio begin to show when the callow researcher's religious zeal impedes their efforts.
The drama of ideas—chiefly integrity, and what it means to be fully human—quickly follows. It is enfleshed in the conflict between the glib and acid wit of Larry (Kevin Spacey) and the certainty of faith in the otherwise uncertain Bob (played expertly by the up-and-coming Peter Facinelli of Supernova and Can't Hardly Wait). The older, shopworn Phil (Danny DeVito) tries wanly to arbitrate the inexorable conflict with a dark detachment made possible by his general resignation from life. DeVito is unusually haunting in his cloaked expressions of brooding despair.
Mirrors are a consistent leitmotif in this film, which unashamedly smacks of the play it is based on (Roger Rueff's Hospitality Suite). Bob—representing American evangelicals—is challenged to look the hardest at his own reflection.
His evangelizing techniques are likened to the marketing methods oozing throughout the convention; thus evangelicals presumably are taken to task for selling Jesus just as Larry and Phil hope to sell industrial lubricants.
The parallel not only raises questions about evangelicals' motives and methods but also serves up Spacey's impeccable delivery hot and fresh.
Larry, valiantly restraining his fury about Bob's spiritual conversation with the big kahuna, says, "Well, did you mention what kind of industrial lubricants Jesus would have endorsed?"
A contrived "realism"
The film raises questions about faith in the workplace in a way that cinema rarely achieves. Our trio's personal drives and concerns are well-rounded and textured enough to tease out the themes of compromise and sacrifice without viewers being able to choose sides too easily.
Christians will find the story provides a good starting point for discussion about marketplace issues. One topic might be whether the drama contains a trite postmodern message against foisting one's beliefs on others; another could be whether there is a suggestion that faith and business are practically incompatible. Larry's dogmatic drive to sell and Bob's lopsided idea of Christian commitment seem to reinforce this false dichotomy.
The wedge the screenplay (also by Rueff) drives between work and faith is the crux of the film's only flaw: realism based on contrived (unreal) conflicts. The very artifices necessary to sustain dramatic tension in a dialogue-driven film, consisting of three men in a hotel suite, wreak havoc on realism.
These contrived situations probably wouldn't matter if this were classical drama, but this film goes beyond that genre with pretensions of gritty realism.
The deep conversations of life and death and God that Larry and Phil have in the dark, still moments of the night are excruciatingly realistic, to the point that the closeups, lighting and backdrops of John Swanbeck's directorial debut nearly give a nod to My Dinner with Andre.
The first artifice resides in the figure cut by Baptist Bob. Throughout the film he is portrayed in his hesitant, wet-behind-the-ears way as eager to do the right thing for the company. Yet somehow he can't bring himself to do the minimum asked of him by his colleagues and is even willing to face the volatile Larry with this negligence. Even more unrealistic and inconsistent, Bob excuses himself by saying he didn't want the big kahuna to think he was speaking about Christ only "to cozy up to him, to get him to sign some contract."
When did proclaiming the offense of the Cross become a way of "cozying up" to someone or to court favor? The unanswered question of why Bob cannot simply do his job and preach Christ reflects little regard for viewers' intelligence. The matter must be construed into an either/or question to advance the drama, at the expense of realism and the consistency of Bob's solicitous character.
True enough, Bob's Christian commitment is firm and single-minded. But realism is again strained when his evangelical zeal is somehow ignorant of the basic scriptural appeal to do everything, including one's job, as unto the Lord.
Even if Bob has cultivated no fully developed spirituality of work—a perhaps accurate portrayal of the typical evangelical—it is improbable that this Bible-imbued believer feels no compulsion to do a good job even under in tense pressure to do so. Nor does his negligence square with the intelligence he is repeatedly said to possess.
Marketing the faith?
The screenplay's artifices thus set Bob up for a good postmodern lecture about integrity, character, and what it means to be fully human. The hypocrisy of this judgmentalism is not initially evident because the secular preachers, Larry and Phil, are constructed as such long-suffering, humble, and reasonable guys; indeed, they have some true things to say.
Asserting that Bob is less human by trying to "market" Christianity, however, is not one of them. This charge is based on Bob trying to "steer" conversations toward Christ like a marketing rep rather than listening with genuine care, though in the film it is clear that if the shiny young man does anything well, it is to listen—to the big kahuna as well as to them. Nevertheless, part of the genuine conflict in the film is that Bob sees evangelism as humanizing the business world, whereas his secular colleagues see it as dehumanizing.
Whether their judgmentalism is more unfair toward faith or business would be another point for discussion. The assumption is that business dehumanizes people by causing others to see and treat them only as functions, whereas it is axiomatic in business that success depends on quality relationships of trust, integrity, and character. This is also often true, of course, for relational evangelism (as the first-century spread of Christianity via the Middle Eastern commercial routes demonstrated).
While Christians in the marketplace do indeed face serious tensions, the false dichotomy between faith and commerce dramatized in this film does justice to neither. Business becomes a cliché for the morally ambiguous. Faith becomes a cliché for intolerance and otherworldliness. Most Christian ceos, as Laura Nash has shown in her Believers in Business (Thomas Nelson, 1994), display a far greater integration of faith and work than what this mirror attempts to reflect about business and evangelicalism.
Indeed, it will be difficult for evangelicals to learn much about themselves by looking into the distorted mirror this film holds up—although, as in any funhouse, a good time is practically guaranteed.
Visit the official Kevin Spacey Web site, Spaceyland.
Spacey and DeVito's previous joint venture was L.A. Confidential, in which DeVito played a tabloid reporter and Spacey served as a commercialized cop who decides to do the right thing. Read Roger Ebert's review of the movie.
Read a DeVito interview on Francis Ford Coppola, L.A. Confidential, and wife Rhea Perlman from The Los Angeles Times.
Read People's interview with Peter Facinelli about the making of The Big Kahuna.
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