The Big Kahuna is little more than a filmed stage play, with a few flashes of the characters’ imaginations, some dialogue-free cuts away to what the characters are talking about, and a lot of extras for a party scene, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that.

What else should one expect from a film based on a play called Hospitality Suite with a screenplay adapted by the playwright Roger Rueff? It’s set in a hotel’s hospitality suite in Wichita, Kansas, and features three men talking with the express intent of setting up a premise and then talking about the results. That’s the story. To dismiss it as not being “cinematic” (whatever that means) is either ignorant or dishonest.

Director John Swanbeck gets it. Here is their story told, not from the long shots of the theater audience’s perspective, but in medium shot and close-up. It is more intimate than any stage production of the material could hope to be, even if Rueff’s stage conventions (primarily act breaks) are too obvious.

Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, and Peter Facinelli are respectively Larry, Phil, and Bob, and they sell industrial lubricants. Larry is the fast- and smooth-talking, aggressive type. Phil is the down-on-his-luck, introspective guy with the most seniority. Bob is the new kid, six months on the job and not even a salesman. Bob is here to make the company look like it cares about research and technical support. Potential customers don’t care about who these men are, Larry tells the new guy, but what they are — what they represent.

There’s a big catch, a “grand kahuna,” at the conference downstairs in the lobby. Their ability to nab or fail in nabbing a sale from him will seal their professional fate.

The character dynamics are simple: Larry wants to make the sale (at the party for prospective customers, he imagines them worshipping him), Phil could not care less anymore (he imagines jumping off the balcony), and Bob has no clue what’s happening (he imagines being a competent bartender). All of the important character information is revealed almost immediately off the bat. We find out Phil is divorced, Bob is devoutly religious, and Larry antagonizes (perhaps jovially, because when he’s genuinely angry, he makes it known).

Rueff is a bit too blunt in his revelatory dialogue, especially when it comes to elucidating central themes. There’s a sense of throwing balls up in the air early on to be swung at for the bleachers later on.

Even these teetering elements work, for the most part, because of the central performances. Facinelli is the weakest of the bunch, although that’s more because of his character’s role as interrogator. Spacey is the flashiest, a salesman among salesman who isn’t scared to call out someone’s crap.

Balancing the two is DeVito, soft-spoken and world-weary. His final monologue never feels like what it actually is — a flat-out statement of the film’s major theme of finding character through regret.

What does Phil regret? He doesn’t say directly in The Big Kahuna, and he doesn’t need to. It’s right there, in close-up, on DeVito’s face.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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