Ten years ago, I was a university student spending my summers working in the marketing department of a downtown engineering company. I had attended Christian schools all my life and I was not used to being in such a thoroughly secular environment. But I got along with my co-workers, including one woman who gave me some tips on being a professional writer.
One day after work, we were riding the SkyTrain home together, and just before we reached her stop, I asked if she would be interested in coming to my church. She giggled a bit and said, “Am I your ‘project’?” I quickly said no, but I felt like I’d been caught telling a fib. I had invited her out of a sense of duty as much as anything else, and it bothered me to think that I may have treated her in a somewhat depersonalized way.
I was reminded of that incident while watching The Big Kahuna, a simple but profound film about three industrial-lubricant salesmen who spend a weekend at a convention hoping to close a big deal. One of the salesmen is Bob (Peter Facinelli), a shy born again believer who accepts the teasing of his co-workers but also takes a stand, however awkwardly, for his values.
When his aggressive, constantly cursing colleague Larry (Kevin Spacey) suggests that they go ogle some women, Bob responds that it is adulterous to even look at a woman lustfully. Also, a recurring theme in the film is that, to salesmen, people are nothing but ‘functions’; everyone is a potential customer and everything is judged by whether or not it can be used to make a sale. Bob resists this dehumanizing approach to the world.
Larry and his old friend Phil (Danny DeVito) are particularly interested in one corporate executive, who they call “the big kahuna.” Above all else, they must land that one client, so they host a party, hoping to lure him in. At first it appears that he never showed up. But after the party is over, they discover that he did make an appearance, wearing someone else’s name-tag. Not only that, but he became fast friends with Bob.
It turns out ‘the big kahuna’ was quietly grieving the death of his dog, and Bob, not knowing who he was, began to console him. Pressed for information, Bob tells Larry and Phil they never got around to discussing industrial lubricants; instead, Bob used the man’s sadness as a ‘lead-in’ for introducing him to Jesus. And one of the film’s central questions is whether Bob, in his own way, is treating people as ‘functions.’
There are no good guys or bad guys in this film. In fact, there are few guys, period; director John Swanbeck, adapting Roger Rueff’s three-man play Hospitality Suite, doesn’t even try to open it up by adding new characters to the mix. But why should he?
All the actors are superb. Spacey finds a better mix of sarcasm and subtlety as Larry than he ever did in American Beauty; Facinelli conveys Bob’s callowness without sacrificing his positive points; and DeVito is a revelation as a soul-searcher who knows he needs to make some changes in his life.
Most critics, if they mention the film’s religious elements, have done so only in passing. Perhaps, as Roger Ebert has said, they are blinded by their own secular beliefs. But make no mistake about it, despite its Mamet-like vulgarities, this is a deeply spiritual film.
It does not deny the gospel any more than it denies the validity of industrial lubricants. But it does challenge us to be honest and humble in our relationships — especially when we are dealing with matters of the spirit.