The story of the angst-ridden salesman struggling with his past, coping with regret and searching for meaning in life is a tale that audiences have heard and seen many times before. Multiple versions of this tale have been produced, many originating as a play and subsequently gaining release as a motion picture. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is the first and most famous of these, chronicling the failures of Willy Loman, initially as a theatrical production and then in the 1985 film version starring Dustin Hoffman in the title role. David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross is another example, the story of a group of salesmen desperate to meet company quotas and save their jobs. Mamet’s play found life as a cinematic release starring Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, and Kevin Spacey. Kevin Spacey also stars in The Big Kahuna, the next of these plays-become-movies about salesmen to hit the big screen.
The Big Kahuna began life initially as a play entitled Hospitality Suite, written by Roger Rueff (who also wrote the screenplay). With his latest entry into this burgeoning and very specific genre, Rueff finds himself at risk of revisiting the thematic territory covered so ably by his predecessors Miller and Mamet. While the film generally avoids merely repeating these previous films, it cannot completely steer clear of rehashing many of the same ideas found in Death of a Salesman and Glengary Glen Ross.
The film focuses on three industrial lubricant salesmen as they try to land a lucrative account at a weekend convention in Wichita, Kansas. Larry (played by Kevin Spacey) and Phil (Danny DeVito) are old pros, and have worked as a team for over twelve years. Accompanying them is Bob (Peter Facinelli), the young, naive, and eager initiate who looks to learn the ropes from the old masters. What he gets is an eye-opening introduction into the cutthroat world of sales, a world that at once exhilarates and frustrates, that offers both the great monetary rewards of omission and the crushing disillusionment of losing a sale.
That these characters sell industrial lubricant is fitting. In many ways, The Big Kahuna celebrates the slick style of the salesman, a figure who relies on verbal dexterity to achieve his ultimate goal, the sale. As Larry, Kevin Spacey is the beneficiary of many of the most memorable lines in the film, speaking with the well-oiled tongue of a man who makes his living by wielding words like weapons. When Bob asks Larry how long he’s been partnered with Phil, Larry immediately breaks into a rambling discussion of dog years, human years, and geologic time. Larry’s verbal mastery is at once impressive and relentless, as he unleashes speech after speech throughout the film. His incessant verbalizing, though, is fundamental to his job and, not incidentally, his self-image. No one is really interested in buying industrial lubricant. Larry, like all salesmen, must sell himself to be successful.
While Spacey’s enthusiastic performance as this oral acrobats noteworthy in The Big Kahuna, it cannot completely rescue the film’s plodding pace. As with many plays translated to film, the lack of physical movement and the abundance of dialogue make for a decidedly slow-moving work that must struggle to keep the audience’s interest. Danny DeVito’s Phil certainly doesn’t help matters. In contrast to the hyperactive Larry, Phil is numb and apathetic as a result of his long tenure as a salesman and his pending divorce. His suicidal fantasies and morose mumblings are highly Lomanian in content. Haunted by his past failures and burdened by regret, Phil is given to wistfully philosophical ramblings on love, God, and death. These moments are the most regrettable of the film, as Phil is transformed into the stereotypical Disillusioned Salesman. At the film’s conclusion, however, he does manage to teach a very valuable (if unoriginal) lesson to the neophyte Bob.
Bob functions mainly as an excuse for Phil and Larry to express their sundry ideas about life and salesmanship. At the film’s climax, Bob gets his chance to hawk the company product to Mr. Fuller, the title’s referent (the “Big Kahuna”) and president of the company whose account the three are courting. Instead, however, Bob chooses to discuss Christianity with the potential client and later defends his decision to Larry and Phil as more important than selling lubricant. After fending off the apoplectic Larry, Bob must face Phil, who makes the point that discussing Christianity and discussing lubricant is essentially the same activity: they’re both about selling.
This significance of this revelation saves the film from its more melancholy meandering and explains why the figure of the salesman continues to operate as a focus of both film and theater. The Big Kahuna‘s most valuable lesson is that everyone, in some way, is a salesman. Every day, with stories, arguments, actions and discussions, we’re all selling something. Whether it’s a political opinion, a religious belief, or simply one’s image, everyone has something to sell. Human beings interact with one another in a vast market of exchange, of pitch and purchase. In fact, this very review that you’re reading now is a pitch, an expression of an opinion that might, in some fashion, be bought by the reader or else left on the rack. Though we may have learned this lesson long ago from Arthur Miller, it bears repeating. For this repetition, if for nothing else, The Big Kahuna succeeds, describing the world many of us inhabit in a provocative fashion and inspiring a new appreciation for the likes of Willy Loman.