If making movies and plays about unmoored American businessmen living and talking the American business life in disembodied American business settings has become a big business all its own — with Arthur Miller as CEO and David Mamet as president — then Kevin Spacey, the embodiment of fast-talking soullessness, is the firm’s top salesman.
In The Big Kahuna, originally a theater piece by former Illinois chemical engineer Roger Rueff, the actor stars as Larry, an industrial lubricant salesman at a convention in a Wichita hotel, who passes a night with two colleagues in the company’s hospitality suite testing the meaning, and meaninglessness, of life. Larry is hard-edged and cynical; his old friend and lieutenant Phil (Danny DeVito) is worn out by hustling and yessing. Only their new coworker, Bob (Peter Facinelli), exhibits the nervous eagerness of young talent. But Bob’s also armed with the confounding sureness of a devout Christian. And when he invokes Jesus, Larry looses a volley of baleful observations about…actually, about nothing much.
Chicago theater director John Swanbeck moves his men around the room while each character gets a turn in the philosophical spotlight. There are moments when the talk scores a small point in favor of one practical or spiritual truth or another, and there’s a surprisingly forceful performance by DeVito, whose head sometimes fills the whole screen as Phil shares the wisdom of a disappointed man with his showier associates. That The Big Kahuna is hardly more than a sketch or curtain-raiser is not the fault of the play in itself — it’s short-film size, not feature-worthy — or of Spacey’s current overidentification with hollow men. But any honest businessperson, either late at night in an impersonal hotel or first thing in the morning at a staff meeting, will recognize that the movie is a product with a short shelf life. C+