Big Kahuna (John Swanbeck, 1999)

This movie has such a simple plot that most of the action occurs in a single room. And most of the action involves nothing more than talking. Three men talking in a room. In a hospitality suite in a hotel, to be exact, at a convention in Wichita, Kansas. A not-very nice hospitality suite complete with cheap refreshments and a view looking out on a very boring part of town. The three are there to land a big contract with Dick Fuller, the president of another company whom they refer to as The Big Kahuna. Their company sells industrial lubricants. But there is a complication. One of the men is far more committed to Jesus Christ than he is to industrial lubricants.

Kevin Spacey plays Larry Mann, a fast-talking, ironic, profane, deeply cynical, superb salesman for whom nothing seems to matter quite as much as closing the deal. Danny DeVito plays Phil Cooper, Larry’s long-time, slightly older and slightly worn-out partner, whose impending divorce is making him wonder whether life in the fast lane is all it’s chalked up to be. “I feel like I’ve been shaking somebody’s hand one way or another all of my life,” Phil says. And Peter Facinelli plays Bob Walker—young, clean-cut, newly married, nervous about being at his first convention, and a born-again Baptist.

The three host an open bar in the hospitality suite, waiting for The Big Kahuna to show up so Larry and Phil can work their marketing magic. Afterwards, as they talk about the failure the evening represents, it is discovered that Dick Fuller had shown up, but without a name tag, and that Bob had spent the long evening in conversation with him. Fuller was depressed over the death of his dog, Bob says, and the conversation simply went on from there. “We talked about Christ,” Bob says finally, nervous, yet certain he has done the right thing. “About Christ?” screams Larry. “Did you mention what line of industrial lubricant Jesus uses?” When Bob mentions that Mr. Fuller has invited him to join him later at another party, Larry and Phil insist that he goes. “It’s like putting me in the deep end and seeing if I can swim,” says Bob. “No,” Larry replies, “it’s like pushing you off a cliff and seeing if you can fly.”

The Big Kahuna is a remarkable movie, based on a play, Hospitality Suite, by Roger Rueff, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. Some critics and viewers find the scope of the film (one room) sufficient for the stage but too narrow for a film, but I find it bracing when dialogue is so sharply written that it sweeps you into the lives of the characters. DeVito and Spacey are utterly believable as Phil and Larry. And unlike so many Hollywood productions which caricature believers unfairly, Facinelli depicts a born-again Christian who you could find actually sitting in a Baptist pew on an average Sunday morning. Near the end of the film, when Phil finally penetrates Bob’s armor, his fatherly speech is both tender and compelling. All three characters develop in the course of the film, and it is this development, revealed in the dialogue, that makes the film so satisfying as cinema.

As the final credits roll, we hear the script from an actual advertisement that consists of a series of platitudes given as advice. Though irritatingly bland, the recitation reminds us of two facts. It reminds us that we live in a consumer culture, and that most people are still looking and waiting for their Big Kahuna.

“There are two religions in America, one spiritual, one secular. The first worships in churches, the second at business conventions,” Roger Ebert says. “The Big Kahuna is about an uneasy confrontation between these two systems of faith.” Or as movie critic Michael Elliott summarized in his review on “Is it possible to swim with the sharks and still be a fisher of men?” Relatively few films raise so many questions so explicitly or invite discussion about such a range of issues: the meaning of life, the nature of human relationships, the essence of sales as a vocation, the relationship of evangelism to marketing, and the place of personal faith and witnessing in the marketplace.

We recommend The Big Kahuna to you. Rated R for the language that is nothing but what you’d expect to hear in a hospitality suite filled with salesmen trying to sell industrial lubricants.


1. How do you feel about the monotony of setting and character? Did the lack of “action” add to or take away from your enjoyment of the film? 2. What did the upbeat music at beginning cause you to expect? How does the director use music to enhance the film? 3. TBK is adapted from play, so dialogue and “incidentals” carry special importance. Did you notice details about the set that added to the film’s effect? Is it possible to read too much into the details? For instance, did you notice the characters’ names: Larry Mann, Bob Walker, Phil Cooper? Is this significant, or do we make too much of things? Even more broadly, is it a mistake to try to make strict analogies between events on-screen and reality (think of Phil’s dream, for instance)? 4. What is the relevance of the original title, “Hospitality Suite?” 5. When Phil’s divorce is brought up, Bob says, “I guess I just have a hard time imagining what it must be like to have a divorce.” How is that interaction a sort of paradigm for the way Bob relates to Phil and Larry? How is his interaction similar to the way that Christians relate to non-Christians? What’s at stake regarding “relevance” and empathy? 6. Often, Bob fails to interact, especially posed with awkward questions. Is his lack of dialogue warranted? How should a Christian respond to such questions? In his attempt to represent Christianity, he is forced to manage the line between authenticity and his image; how should Christians manage this tension? 7. Larry asks Bob during a conversation about lusting, “Do they blind you when you get saved, do they?” Was Larry’s question justified? How would you answer that? Why do non-Christians ask questions like that? 8. How do you understand the statement “What we are is more important than who we are”? 9. How do you understand the statement “If you know what you’re doing, you don’t have to look like you know what you’re doing”? 10. How did you respond to Larry’s cynicism? Why do you think he’s that way? What are Larry’s good attributes? What are Phil’s good attributes? In what ways are they more consistent with their philosophies of life than Bob? Is Christianity about “going through your life without doing anything”? Why would someone make such a statement? 11. Larry, speaking about marriage, refers to two people whose “principles got married; the two of them just came along for the ride. Love has a lot of counterfeits.” What does he mean by this? Do you see this happening in your circles? If so, why do you think it happens, and what does it reveal about our understanding of the way that love and commitment interact? 12. What does Bob’s bartending daydream reveal about his real desires versus what he says to others? Larry’s daydream? Phil’s daydream? Compare the three. Bob quotes scripture, often in reaction, throughout the film. What effect did that have on you? Compare your reaction to Bob and Larry’s. 13. In what ways do Phil and Larry understand the meaning of scripture better than Bob? For instance, Bob says, quoting scripture, that “God created Eve to be a helper.” Larry replies, “I don’t know anything about that, Bob, but I do know that God created women to be mirrors, so a man could see what an ass he is.” Does God reveal himself through non-Christians? 14. Was Bob’s initial conversation (a “lead-in”) with the “Big Kahuna” legitimate? 15. Bob is criticized for “looking for the opportunity to talk about life and death.” Is that a valid criticism? Can we have conversations that don’t regress, ultimately, to life and death? Should we seek them out in all situations? Depending on your answer, how does that affect the way that you view “small talk,” or conversations in the workplace? 16. In the midst of his conversation with Mr. Fuller, was Bob really listening, even though he was looking for a specific conversation? Is it wrong to steer conversations? The first serious conversation, heartfelt conversation, in the film occurs when Bob is gone. Why? What do you think that means for the film, and to the writer of the film? 17. At one point, Larry says to Phil, “I believe what I believe.” “Which is what?” Phil replies, and Larry continues, “How the hell should I know?” Do you think this is a typical conversation? If so, why? 18. Regarding Phil’s dream, how do our projections about what God is like dictate what we’re like, what we think we should be like, what we think others think about us? Do careers distract us from our “missions on earth?” Or are they part of our mission? 19. Why do you think Phil asks Larry if he loves him? Is this a question that everyone wants answered? And why do you think Larry calls later that night to say that he does? 20. If a friend asks if you’d be willing to die for him, how would you answer? Can a non-Christian answer this sincerely? What does your answer reveal about your understanding of non-Christians and their capacities to honor God? 21. In fulfilling our calling, or our vocation, is it more important to “talk about Jesus” than to fulfill our job requirements? Or is that a false dichotomy? Are they one in the same? What does faithfulness look like in terms of our vocations? What does it mean to “share the gospel?” Was Bob insincere in dealing with Mr. Fuller? How so or why not? 22. Just before the physical altercation, Larry says to Bob, “We’re not talking about God; I’m talking about something bigger than God.” Bob replies, “Bigger than God?” Larry answers, “At issue is what we’re here to do, to sell lubricants. We’re not here to save souls.” What is Larry referring to as being bigger than God here? Is he speaking only of selling lubricants, or is he referring to something else? Based on the rest of the film, what do you think the film-maker is suggesting? 23. What is the film saying regarding the importance of sincerity and authenticity? How does our desire for authenticity trump other priorities? 24. Do you think authenticity has become the prime virtue in our culture? How so or why not? Do you think the writer of the film is setting up authenticity as the prime virtue in our culture? Why or why not? 25. What are the differences between being blunt and honest? 26. How does the church use Jesus as a marketing tool? What makes us human beings rather than marketing reps? 27. In his comments on Bob’s character, what was Phil suggesting that Bob needs? 28. How are character and regret dependent on each other, if at all? What makes for character? Are we born with it, or does it grow over time? Do we have to go through certain things to attain it (do things we regret?), and how does it reveal itself? 29. What is the effect of the song at the end of the film?


Big Kahuna (John Swanbeck, 1999) Cast and Crew Starring: Kevin Spacey (Larry Mann) Danny DeVito (Phil Cooper) Peter Facinelli (Bob Walker) Screenwriter: Roger Rueff Director:John Swanbeck Producers:Gerard Guez, Barbara A. Hall, Joanne Horowitz, Bernie Morris, Elie Samaha, Kevin Spacey, Andrew Stevens Cinematographer: Anastas N. Michos Original Music: Christopher Young Costumes: Katharine Jane Bryant Runtime: 90 minutes Rated R for language