The Big Kahuna

The influence of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play “Waiting for Godot” is still being felt, lately in “The Big Kahuna,” a film based on the play “Hospitality Suite,” written (and adapted for the screen) by Roger Rueff.

The situation: Three salesmen for Lodestar Laboratories (makers of industrial lubricants) sit in a Wichita hotel suite, talking about salesmanship, their lives, and religion. Their “Godot” is Dick Fuller, a man who is the “big kahuna” of business-types who, if he buys Lodestar’s industrial lubricants, will make everybody very wealthy and very happy. The question is, will he show up?

Almost every single moment of the film takes place in the hotel suite, with only three characters to watch, yet it avoids claustrophobia and monotony by making those three characters compelling, and the dialogue snappy and funny.

First there’s Phil Cooper (Danny DeVito), a recently divorced man who’s a veteran in this business, and who is frankly growing weary of it. When others begin to panic at Fuller’s failure arrive — and then the fact that he may have been there and they didn’t know it — he keeps saying, “It’ll be all right.” That is his mantra, but the beleaguered look in his eyes suggests he’s not as sure of it as he sounds.

With him in the hotel at the film’s beginning is Bob Walker (Peter Facinelli), a young, idealistic rookie who’s been married six months and is quietly — but ferociously — religious.

His polar opposite is Larry Mann (Kevin Spacey), who arrives after a few minutes, busting up the place like a hurricane with his vulgarity, insults and unchangeable opinions.

Mann is the man here, and Kevin Spacey makes him so compelling you can’t NOT watch him. He uses coarse languge, but he’s clearly intelligent and mostly soft-spoken. He’s abrasive without being loud, and most of his prickly demeanor is just part of his act, a consequence of being closed off from his own emotions. (“I don’t know who I love,” he later tells Phil in a private moment. “There are a lot of people I like, but love? I don’t know.”)

Larry and Phil have been friends and colleagues for years, and they understand each other, for the most part. It is Larry who freaks out the most about Fuller’s no-show, for selling industrial lubricants — and doing a damn fine job of it — is all Larry has in his life. His dream is to be crowned “the big kahuna” himself.

DeVito gives what might be the best performance of his career, lending true humanity to Phil and acting as the perfect buffer between Larry and Bob.

Facinelli is only a half-step behind these two old pros. It would be difficult to act right next to Spacey and not seem like an amateur by comparison, but Facinelli holds his own in their high-intensity scenes together, which revolve around Bob’s insistence on bringing up religion every chance he gets, and whether that’s ethical in a business setting. (You can guess where Larry stands on the issue, though to be fair, it’s not as black-and-white as it sounds.)

The film’s only major misstep is in the final moments, as that faux-inspirational “graduation address” song from last year (the one with all the wise advice like “Don’t read fashion magazines; they will only make you feel ugly”) plays on the soundtrack. In fact, it’s a pretty odd mistake, considering how smooth the rest of the film has been to that point. Ignore that, and you’ve got an intelligent, thought-provoking comedy with just enough drama to make you keep watching.

A- (1 hr., 31 min.; R, rather frequent harsh profanity, sexual dialogue.)