The Big Kahuna (1999)


Being a film lover means a lot more than just seeing all the cinematic greats that have defined cinema, it also means finding those obscure little gems of films that no one else seems to consider important or notable. It has always been a pleasure of mine to find films that are obscure and little-scene, and finding the best of them. One of my favorite discoveries has to be the obscure 1999 comedy, The Big Kahuna. For a film that stars Kevin Spacey in the peak of his success, and Danny De Vito, everyone’s favorite uncle, it is strange that this film is relatively obscure and hardly ever mentioned, not only because it is lead by a trio of charismatic actors, but because its a really great film.

I’ve seen The Big Kahuna about eight times since first seeing it about four years ago. I won’t go into details of how I found it, but I will just say it was in the peak of my phase where I was determined to be a Kevin Spacey completist (and I still am!). I had never heard of this film, and considering it seemed to be quite a funny film (based only on the synopsis), my interests were obviously piqued. I went in expecting one of two things – it would be a great discovery of a little-scene film that has gone ignored, or it would be a trashy and forgettable affair. Luckily, it appears to proudly be the former, and to this day I have no idea why it isn’t seen as one of the high points in both Spacey and De Vito’s careers (I’d say the same for Peter Facinelli, who is the third lead, but considering his career hasn’t really done too much, I’d say this is definitely his high point).

Essentially, The Big Kahuna is a play on film. However, that idea brings up the negative connotation of a filmed play. This is far from that – it takes an obscure little comedy of errors and adapts it for film, while still keeping the general atmosphere of this being a play. The entire film takes place in a single hotel room, and there are only three characters in it, played by Spacey, De Vito and Facinelli. Now if you know anything about me, you know that what I value the most in a film is character development and story, and The Big Kahuna has both in truckloads. The fact that we have only these three characters in this confined space for the entire film allows us to really immerse ourselves into these characters, discover who they are beneath the exteriors that they broadcast to the rest of the world.

Theater is the oldest and most respected form of art precisely because of this – there are very rarely explosions or stunts or fast-paced chases in a theatrical performance, and even the most extravagant of live performances require intense character work and plot development, or else the performance won’t achieve what it set out to do – make the audience connect with what is being presented in front of them. Film needs to follow the formula of being about creating emotions and atmospheres and allowing the audience to connect with the film and escape into it for a small amount of time. Not all films can be like this, however, because if every single film was about three characters bickering and fighting in a room, then we wouldn’t have the diverse and brilliant cinema landscape we’ve created over the past century. This is why films like The Big Kahuna are vital, as they allow for intense character development and characterization to take place. I am well-aware that my obsession with character development often overtakes my reviews, but I think it is one of the few essential tenets of narrative filmmaking, which is incredibly important in my eyes. Without characters we care about, whether loving or hating them, there is no point to cinema, or to entertainment as a whole.

The 1990s were a huge decade for Kevin Spacey. Two Academy Awards, the balancing of big films and small productions and becoming a man known for his innate ability to do both drama and comedy with equal aplomb, made Spacey, without a doubt, the defining actor of the decade. The Big Kahuna marked the end to that decade of Spacey dominance, and signaled his transition to being a true Hollywood veteran. He had proved himself, and was now a household name as an acclaimed actor and a bona fide movie star. Spacey, if you were unaware, has his roots in theater, and he shows his ability to hold the stage perfectly in this film. As Larry Mann, the overconfident and slightly-narcissistic salesman, he leads the cast of The Big Kahuna with fiery passion and angry energy. He shouts and swears and makes his presence known – and Spacey is probably the one actor who doesn’t ever look artificial while doing it. Spacey’s performance as the passionate and angry salesman out for blood is a wonderful juxtaposition to De Vito’s performance as the quiet and sedate older salesman, who is quietly living out his days as a business man and waiting for the day when he can retire and just forget about the stress of the working world. These two old veterans of cinema form a really great contrast to Facinelli’s performance as the naive and shy young salesman. Unfortunately, Facinelli (as much as he tries) cannot hold court like Spacey and De Vito, and he is definitely the weak link of the cast – however, when you’re the youngest and most inexperienced out of a cast of three, where your two castmates are beloved veterans, then that doesn’t quite sound as bad of a criticism as it seems. Facinelli has some lovely moments, and he showed potential here that should’ve given him a slightly better career than he had after this film.

The problem with a film this small is that you start to run out of things to praise and criticize. Any other bigger film has an endless amount of aspects to discuss, but in the end, The Big Kahuna is essentially about three salesmen in a hotel room hoping to catch the “big Kahuna”, a tricky client that they desperately crave. The entire duration of the film centers around life, death, their pasts, present and futures, and the nature of existence. This film is a masterclass in philosophical analysis, and it attempts to answer some of the biggest questions that have plagued humanity for centuries. Of course, this film is much too smart to actually outright answer these questions (or attempt to find answers), so it leaves them ambiguous and mysterious, which adds an extra layer of brilliance to this film.

Of course, there is a whole lot that can be discussed about the nature of the film and what it has to say about life and existence, but that would take far too long. Quite simply, this film is the entire history of philosophy, from ancient Greece to modern times, condensed in the body of a quaint, unique little comedy. This means that there is both too much to explore about this film, and far too little to actually say about it. This is a welcome change, as there have been hundreds of very big films with very little to say about them. The benefit of having a film like The Big Kahuna is that like all the great intellectual comedies, you can rewatch it a dozen times and still find something new. No matter how many times I rewatch The Big Kahuna, and how I have memorized entire sections of dialogue, I still find something new, maybe not in terms of actual story, but rather in terms of what this film actually means and implies about life. I am indeed one of those people who over-analyzes art and tries to come to conclusions regarding hidden meanings and implications, and that is perhaps why I love The Big Kahuna so much – it has an endless source of thought-provoking brilliance behind it that it proudly flaunts while never being arrogant.

It is clear to see that The Big Kahuna is a wonderful film. I asked myself the question as to why I didn’t review this film sooner – perhaps it is because there have been so many other films that just screamed to be written about before this one, and just like any great independent film, it is comfortably nestled in the back of our consciousness, laying dormant but becoming active as soon as well need some inspiration or something interesting to say. I doubt The Big Kahuna will ever become a cult film – its too small and too divisive to ever find an audience big enough to make it a cult film. However, it does serve a great purpose of being a small and obscure little film that you just stumble across and never forget. It was the way that I discovered it, and I’m sure it is the same for many others. It is an offbeat little comedy that I love and I think it is too small to ever be notable, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you want some interesting, hilarious and thought-provoking entertainment, have a look at The Big Kahuna, and hopefully you’ll love it as much as I did.


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