Thursday, August 16, 2007


THE BIG KAHUNA (1999, USA, John Swanbeck, Roger Rueff screenplay)
We talked about Christ.
About Christ! Did you mention what line of industrial lubricant Jesus uses?

This movie is a kick. It’s all talk, but what talk – brash, ballsy, smart, and very very funny.

Phil and Bob swap jibes in the easy, prickly way of small-time corporate road warriors who’ve traveled together for years: they’re salesmen, hawking industrial lubricants. Bob’s a new kid from the tech side, idealistic, loyal to a fault, na├»ve, and – here’s where it gets interesting – a born again Christian.

The Wichita trip is for one purpose only: to wangle a sit-down with manufacturing magnate Dick Fuller, in hopes of landing a big fat contract. By night’s end, all’s said and nothing’s done: they’ve come up empty handed. Only it turns out young Bob’s just spent hours in a heart-to-heart with the big kahuna himself, and didn’t sell him any product – though he may have interested Mr Fuller in Jesus.

I love this movie, but it makes me mad. I don’t trust it. It asks all the right questions – about character and honesty and friendship, about allegiances to work and to God – only it fudges the answers. Phil carries the day when he attacks young Bob for talking religion with Fuller: “If you want to deal with somebody honestly – as a human being – ask him how his kids are. The minute you lay your hands on the conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation, it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being, you’re a marketing rep, I don’t care for who.”

We’re so ready to judge anyone who’s got the audacity to broach the One Forbidden Subject, we accept Phil’s criticism without reminding ourselves that what Bob actually did was listen to Dick Fuller talk about what was on his mind, the death of the family dog. He didn’t treat him like a target, he treated him like a person: no wonder he opens up to Bob. We overlook the fact that it’s Phil and Larry who want to cozy up to the man for only one reason: to steer things around to commerce. That Bob’s the one who’s unwilling to betray the man’s trust by manipulating the conversation. And he’s not human? They’re the ones with character? The film plays on the assumption that we’ll accept his easy judgment: the young idealist must be a hypocrite just because he’s religious – the assumption being that “religious hypocrite” is a redundancy. Cheap.

Still... I love this movie. You don’t have to agree with somebody to enjoy their company, and these guys are a blast. Devito’s never been better, bringing a bemused and weary wisdom to the straight man role, and Spacey thrills as he riffs and struts and makes every line bite. And then there’s that wordless ending in the lobby: I don’t know exactly what transpires, but it sure feels fine.


Available at Videomatica


DanBuck said...

This film is one of my favorites, Ron and I'm glad you've tackled it.

Two things - first off: I love that you used the word "wangle" in the same sentence as the name "Dick Fuller". If it's a typo (supposed to be wrangle) please don't fix it.

Secondly- I think you're failing (or perhaps consciously refusing) to make a distinction that the film makes. The purpose of the trip is to win the account. And I think its not so much the inclusion of Christ in the conversation that riles Phil, but rather the failure to bring up lubrication that feels like a betrayal.

I suppose I see your point. But Phil would defend himself by saying that they are not at that conference to have genuine conversations, but rather to put food on their own tables, and by hearing a "higher calling" Loyal Bob has screwed his cohorts and taken food off their table.

Is it the right thing to do if doing it screws others? A tough call. But not as tough a call for those who get screwed.

Anonymous said...

I had to do a name drop here. I have nothing to say about the movie itself, but about a month ago I installed a playground system at Peter (Bob Walker)Facinelli's home. Nice guy. Married to former Beverly Hills 90210 actress Jennie Garth, who is also a nice person. Now, I should watch the film.

Baal T'shuvah

Ron Reed said...

Hey Baal,

Definitely watch the film. It's a treat. Now I definitely feel bad about not praising his performance (which was excellent) along with Kev and Danny (who were exceptional)!

And Dan,

Wangle: To make, achieve, or get by contrivance.

Salesmanship: Well, there were two conversations. In the first, for which he comes under attack by Larry, 1) he didn't know it was Fuller he'd was talking to, 2) he'd been explicitly told that selling product was not his job - he was there to represent "research," they'd call him if they needed him to make a good impression on a client. After the second conversation with Fuller, Bob simply found that having entered into very personal ground with Fuller, to "steer" the conversation to sales felt like a violation. I have sympathy for that. Maybe he made the wrong call, but to say that this is proof that he has "no character" I find really questionable. Yet so persuasive is the film in effectively presenting only one side of the situation, everybody I know who's seen the film instantly sides with Larry and Phil, and agrees that their judgment of Bob is appropriate. I'm just redressing the balance.

I think it's fair enough that maybe the guy shouldn't be in sales. Career questions, sure. But I find Larry, Phil and the playwright guilty of a certain arrogance that (as you can tell) gets under my skin. Bob wasn't entirely right, but neither was he as wrong as he's made out to be: indeed, I find real integrity in his choice to value relationship over deal-making.

Gotta go!


DanBuck said...

Woah! Puttin Larry and Phil in the same group might be overdoing it. I get the feeling that Larry is the model of moderation and both Phil and Bob represent extremes. Bob - so deeply loyal he's blind to disloyalities conveyed by his actions and Phil - only loyal to himself. The conflict at the end doesn't reflect either in a positive light, and I think that makes sense of your lobby scene at the end. It says "We went too far, and we're still both human."

Ron Reed said...

You're definitely right that Phil and Larry are very different critters, though my hunch is that you've got them confused - nothin' moderate about old Larry! (All thes white bread names! They need a Rasheed in the mix so we can keep 'em straight.)

I talk about them together because both launch attacks on Bob for the reasons already mentioned. It's pretty much all Larry after the first brush with La Kuhuna Grande: in fact Phil (DeVito) says something along the line of "Leave him alone, Bob didn't know, it wasn't his fault" or something like that. But after the second Bob-Dick parlay, and after Larry (Spacey) has chowed down on Saint Robert and retired from the field, it's Phil who really shreds the kid when the two of them are left alone - and for all the same reasons. Phil and Larry, two very different characters, but the same attack on the kid, same arguments. Makes me think it's the playwright talking, not the characters at all.

But since we've dug into this a bit more, I will say that you're right in your first post to suggest that I'm deliberately setting aside some of the arguments that can be made against Bob. Partly, only so much balance can be fit in 500 words! Though I may see if I can wedge something in there to mitigate when rewrite time comes around. Mostly, all the points against Bob are made perfectly eloquently in the film - or BY the film, which is probably what really galls me. If wise Phil actually took a different perspective than shoot-off-the-mouth Larry, gave some credit to Bob's choice while disagreeing, the audience would be left to make up their own minds on The Bob Question, instead of being bullied into it by Phil, Larry AND Roger - the three being indistinguishable on this essential point.

You're definitely right, the reason the company spent the money to send these boys to Wichita was simple: sell product. Fair enough. And when Bob (in Round Two with Fuller) consciously chooses not to bring lubricants into the conversation because he doesn't want to risk a savvy, salesman-wary Fuller suspecting that their whole very human (maybe even divine) interaction was nothing but a very elaborate, convincing, but nonetheless calculated lead-in to yet another sales pitch.... He's not doing his job. He's not serving the corporation.

So fire him already! But playwright, don't try to make the case that he's a lousy human being because of it, a man "without character." Because he chooses humanity over the corporation. Isn't that a decision we should at least be tempted to celebrate in our MacStarbuck mall of a culture?

It's a choice I might well make in Bob's place, and I feel the play and film could have been so much better if the writer had given Bob (and the audience) a little more respect.

One perfectly legitimate response to the scenario (not just rhetoric: I mean it) is "they are not at that conference to have genuine conversations." As Larry says, they are not human beings, they are functions. But am I the only one whose skin crawls a bit at that idea? Bob defies it: given the choice, he decides he will be a human being rather than a corporate function. That he IS at that conference - and everywhere else, hopefully - to have genuine conversations. It's a radical choice, it flies in the face of what the corporation wants and what our culture values, but it's one that I happen to value.

This is fun! Wish we could do it in person, Mr Buck. Hope the MFA's going great!


DanBuck said...

This IS good stuff.

And I will concede that the playwright/screenwriter probably weighs in too heavily. And its hard for me to see it clearly, cause I'm as sick of self-righteous Christian pricks as he is.

(I know you know, but for others, this play is an adaptation of The Hospitality Suite)

However, I bet Rueff would argue that while the "function" roles they take on at the conference is creepy for its agenda'd nature, Larry (and you're right I mixed them up) would say its just as artificial as trying to seel Christ, so as long as your going to sell something, why not sell the thing that will help your co-workers from losing their jobs. (I think the stakes are important here)

Now, here's where we come in as Christians. We value the message Bob has for Dick Fuller (such loaded literary name) over the job security of Phil and Larry. Phil and Larry and even Roger Rueff would probably not see things quite that way.

I'd be curious about your thoughts on two speeches in the film/play - 1st: God hiding in the closet. 2nd: The Christ-like salesman upon which Larry lavishes praise.