The Big Kahuna

In their methodology, The Big Kahuna and Time Code are diametrically opposed. The former is a filmed play, the latter a visual experiment with improvised dialogue – yet they manage to exemplify the complex storytelling dilemmas facing contemporary filmmakers.

For his debut film, The Big Kahuna, theater director John Swanbeck has made a respectful adaptation of Roger Rueff’s play, Hospitality Suite. Swanbeck opts to make the camera invisible, focusing the attention on Rueff’s dialogue (he also wrote the screenplay) and the interplay between three company men who travel to Wichita, Kan., in order to pitch their firm’s industrial lubricants at a tool-and-die convention. Their real goal is to land – at any cost – an account with a major Midwest firm whose corporate head (dubbed "the Big Kahuna") will be making the rounds.

It’s the first business trip for Bob Walker (Peter Facinelli), an impossibly square and self-righteous young researcher who’s unnerved by the temptations of the road. Bob immediately latches onto company veteran Phil Cooper (Danny DeVito), a wizened and quite sad man who harbors suicidal fantasies along with a sizable font of wisdom about the vagaries of life pursued without a grand purpose.

At the center of this microcosm is magnetic, fast-talking Larry Mann (Kevin Spacey), who could seemingly sell ice to Eskimos. It’s a role that Spacey dives into with lip-smacking relish – and since he serves as one of the film’s producers, it’s not difficult to see how this film got made.

The Big Kahuna is clearly an actor’s vehicle, and as the power dynamics between these very different men irrevocably shift during one pivotal night, the trio get the opportunity to really display their skills (with a tender and fragile DeVito giving one of his best performances).

But what makes this film feel so old-fashioned isn’t just Swanbeck’s careful, restrained direction, but the subject matter. The cinematic shelf-life for salesmen (and renaming them marketing managers doesn’t make them seem any less dated) has long expired. It isn’t that this type of profession no longer exists, but few writers are able to go beyond the parameters of white-collar angst established in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or the self-loathing David Mamet captured in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Then, in his zeal to capture the zeitgeist, Time Code director Mike Figgis (Internal Affairs, Leaving Las Vegas) sets his film in the entertainment industry, feeding the public’s insatiable fascination with the business of making movies. The action swirls around the West Hollywood office of Red Mullet Films (the actual name of Figgis’ production company, just one of many insider jokes).

This particular afternoon – punctuated by earthquakes and aftershocks – includes many satirical Hollywood moments: a mundane-inane executives’ meeting; auditions for a sexploitation flick; the viewing of painfully bad screen tests; a hilariously pretentious pitch meeting; and the oddball presence of a masseur (a very funny Julian Sands) sent to relieve built-up stress.

Meanwhile, a genuine emotional meltdown is taking place as company head Alex Green (Stellan Skarsgård) tries to reconcile with his estranged wife, Emma (Saffron Burrows), while conducting an affair with would-be actress Rose (Salma Hayek), whose own lover, Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn), suspects the infidelity.

Figgis wrote the film’s storyline, then the actors were asked to come up with their own dialogue. During this choreographed improvisation, four digital cameras capture the action in real time, and the screen has been divided into quarters to present all viewpoints simultaneously (the sound mix expertly expands on Robert Altman’s experiments in overlapping dialogue).

As he jumps headfirst into the new aesthetic possibilities offered by digital technology, Figgis eschews one of the basic tools of cinema: editing. There’s not one single cut in Time Code, which gives it the meandering feel of real life. This is both the film’s strength and its weakness.

What Time Code lacks is what The Big Kahuna has in abundance: the kind of revelatory moments which emerge from the convergence of smart dialogue and strong actors. (Ironically, Figgis showed how well a play can work onscreen in his extraordinary adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie.)

Both films are self-conscious hybrids – of the natural and the artificial, the planned and the spontaneous – which aptly demonstrate that cinema in its second century is still very much a work in progress.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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