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Big Kahuna, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 17 June 2003

The Big Kahuna

Universal Home Video
starring: Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Peter Facinelli
release year: 2000
film rating: Three-and-a-Half Stars
sound/picture: Three Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

Contrary to what its title and the box art imply, ‘The Big Kahuna’ is not about surfing, Hawaiians or wild partying. It is instead a study of three characters that is often keenly funny, occasionally quite moving and consistently perceptive and articulate, as well as exquisitely acted by Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito and Peter Facinelli.

Larry (Spacey) and Phil (DeVito) are a pair of veteran salesmen representing their company at a convention in the Midwest. They are joined by a new guy from the research department, Bob (Facinelli), who is a generation younger, a lot less experienced and (to Larry’s exasperation) a devout Baptist. The trio host a party with the aim of snagging an important client, referred to jocularly as "the Big Kahuna," among other things. Larry’s tension escalates to the brink of explosion, while Phil tries to remain philosophical and Bob has an agenda of his own that surprises even him.

‘Kahuna’ has many things going for it, but it is manifestly not a DVD to play for its sound. The 5.1 mix is engaged minimally, with the center channel carrying the brunt of the dialogue-driven piece. The left and right mains come alive whenever music is added to the mix, and the rears occasionally gently add deep background score and foley noises like footsteps and offscreen laughter. Chapter 8 is about as complex as the mix gets, filling the mains with lively jazz and enlivening the rears with the whispers of a small crowd. Chapter 18 is notable for its apt use of Baz Luhrmann’s spoken-advice hit "Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen." It’s not clear if the track was written expressly for inclusion in ‘The Big Kahuna,’ but it suits the piece splendidly.

It’s a shame that the DVD does not come with an audio commentary track, especially as Spacey is listed as one of the producers. Then again, his performance counts for a great deal in itself. It’s not going to come as news to most viewers that Spacey can do just about anything, but it’s still wonderful to witness the fit of actor and role here. Caustic, wounded, infuriated, pensive and frightened, we can’t take our eyes off the guy.

Meanwhile, DeVito, who is often taken for granted in his solid supporting turns elsewhere, displays extraordinary sensitivity, timing and gravity. He and Spacey play off one another with an assurance that makes it seem as though they really have been on the road through hell together for decades. Facinelli is appropriately callow and sincere, persuasive whether he’s being deferential or stubborn.

‘Kahuna’ is far more character-driven than most dramas or comedies (even acclaimed offbeat fare like ‘American Beauty’), yet it still emerges as inherently filming. Roger Rueff’s screenplay, based on his play ‘Hospitality Suite,’ neither hides nor trips over its theatrical origins under John Swanbeck’s graceful direction. ‘Kahuna’ retains the focus of its source material – it doesn’t shoehorn in any major field trips in the cause of "opening up" the story – but Swanbeck adroitly utilizes the intimacy of camera and microphone. He is able to prove the meanings of a change in glance or in breath, details that are crucial but that usually only register in life, not art. He also explores the outside environment just enoughto provide a potent sense of place.

‘The Big Kahuna’ doesn’t easily fit into any genre classification. It’s far too vigorous and fiercely humorous to be considered "quiet," despite its modestly-scaled production. Imagine a version of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ populated by characters you might actually care to meet, but with the same on-target observations of human nature, and you’ll have an idea of what ‘Kahuna’ is like.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Surround 5.1
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Theatrical Trailer; English Closed-Captioning; Chapter Search
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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