- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2000

''The Big Kahuna," based on a modestly interesting three-character play called "Hospitality Suite," has nothing big to recommend it unless that second, superfluous Academy Award has made Kevin Spacey an instant box-office powerhouse.

Produced under the auspices of Mr. Spacey's production company (coincidentally by two of the producers who also came to John Travolta's aid on behalf of the hapless "Battlefield Earth"), this barely disguised theater piece may be remembered for a couple of quips that have out-of-context reverberations.

At one point, Mr. Spacey, cast as a sarcastic Midwestern salesman named Larry, gets to ask a young, straight-laced colleague called Bob, played by the cagey Peter Facinelli, "Are you gay?"

It's strictly a tongue-in-cheek remark in context. Bob isn't, and Larry is an incorrigible hyperbolic mocker.

Nevertheless, it's a little surprising that Mr. Spacey should be trifling with the sort of speculation that has harassed his own private life in recent years.

It's easier to enjoy the double meaning when Larry inquires, "Where's my shrimp?" He happens to be in the company of his best pal, Phil, another veteran salesman, played with weary authority by the diminutive Danny DeVito.

Ostensibly, brash Larry and rueful Phil are sharing a hospitality suite with untutored Bob at a hotel in Wichita, Kan., the site of a manufacturer's convention that concerns their company, Lodestar Labs, a specialist in industrial lubricants.

A prized client, Dick Fuller, somehow eludes the old pros during a reception, briefly depicted in pantomime party footage. After the guests depart and the three

the dialogue, written by Roger Rueff, a chemical engineer who became a playwright in the late 1980s, Bob realizes he struck up a conversation with Mr. Fuller while tending bar.

He is urged to make further contact that evening but dismays his mentors by returning to testify that he declined to talk business. Bob has revealed a devout Baptist bias.

He confesses that he was too preoccupied with witnessing for Christ during his follow-up chat with Mr. Fuller (presumably the "Kahuna" of the alternate, miscalculated title). Bob thought it indecent to shift the emphasis from the spiritual to the material for mere professional advantage.

This turn of events seems more promising as an excuse for drawing room (or hospitality suite) comedy than a lot of situations a writer could dream up.

Unfortunately, Mr. Rueff's humorous tendencies are incidental and scattered rather than systematic and decisive. He elects to brood about Bob's betrayal of the sales team. Larry is predictably infuriated and caustic until pacified by the patient Phil, who also makes it his responsibility to scold Bob gently for misplaced priorities and selfishness.

Because you're never sure what placed Bob in the company of Larry and Phil to begin with, his presumption is a little hard to take seriously. In a way, it seems to serve the other guys right after somehow overlooking a big client.

The crisis appears bogus, but some amusing rhetorical mileage can be derived from it. Mr. Rueff goes earnest way too early, spoiling one's expectations that three illuminating shades of fanaticism or mere eccentricity might emerge from the misalliance of Bob with Larry and Phil.

I was charmed to discover that an elderly spectator near me seemed to mistake Mr. Facinelli for Tom Cruise. The former is a potentially disarming and formidable chameleon. Not so long ago, he was pretty much the whole show in the science-fiction bummer "Supernova," which cast him as a murderous alien shape-shifter.

Mr. Facinelli underplays the underwritten Bob about as cleverly as the circumstances permit. He also probably could pass for George Gershwin, just in case Martin Scorsese, or someone, is still contemplating a new (and let's hope improved) biopic.

TWO OUT OF FOUR STARS

TITLE: "The Big Kahuna"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, comic and sexual vulgarity; calculated ridicule of a character who professes to be a devout Baptist)

CREDITS: Directed by John Swanbeck. Screenplay by Roger Rueff, based on his play "Hospitality Suite"

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

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