The Big Kahuna and Swimming with Sharks (review)

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Ready for His Close-up

I am utterly in the thrall of Kevin Spacey, so whatever I say here must be taken with a grain of salt. I think he’s probably the most mesmerizing actor I’ve ever seen onscreen, and I’ve yet to see a film that he didn’t make worth seeing for his performance.

Though Spacey is a fine stage actor — I saw his turn in last year’s Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh — what makes him so compelling on film is his face and his stillness. Spacey is never more powerful than when he’s sitting motionless and staring at another actor — his acting is all in his eyes, which no actor can use effectively onstage, because of the physical distance at which the audience is held. But film gets us as near to another human face as most of us only get with the very closest of friends and family. Spacey is the rare actor who knows how to make the most of that intimate familiarity. Spacey knows how to seduce us.

And the ironic thing is, two movies that demonstrate this beguiling talent of Spacey’s are quite theatrical: The Big Kahuna is a faithful adaptation of a stage play, and Swimming with Sharks feels, at least in part, as if it could be.
Not in Kansas anymore
At a Wichita convention, three salesmen man the Lodestar Laboratories hospitality suite, waiting for “the Big Kahuna,” the bigshot who could potentially become the most lucrative client ever for their company’s industrial lubricants. While they wait, and wait, the conversation of these three very different men will revolve around honesty and ethics, the importance of character, and the nature of regret. It might sound a bit like Waiting for Godot or Death of a Salesman, but the similarities are superficial. The Big Kahuna, written by Roger Rueff and based on his play Hospitality Suite, is its own unique beast, and one that never quite goes where you’d expect it to go.

Bob (Peter Facinelli: Supernova), Larry (Kevin Spacey: American Beauty, The Negotiator), and Phil (Danny DeVito: The Virgin Suicides, The Rainmaker) could be seen as three aspects of one man. Twentysomething Bob, just out of school, is the young man just starting out on adult life, naïve and sheltered, who has yet to face the disillusionment that comes with meeting reality. The forty-ish Larry is a cynical wiseass with a morbid sense of humor that’s probably an attempt to stave off the worldweariness he sees in his old friend Phil, who, divorced and verging on sixty, fears that his opportunities for happiness have passed him by. Will the fresh and cheerful kid save his tired elders from themselves? It seems that way at first, when Bob discovers that the evangelical religious beliefs he holds — and which annoy Larry no end — led to an unwitting chat with the Big Kahuna while Larry failed in his attempts to track the client down. But the apparently unimpeachable Bob ends up being the one who has his attitudes challenged, in such a way as to suggest that the bitter disappointments we face as our youthful idealism is betrayed aren’t always a bad thing.

Stage director John Swanbeck — who had never directed a film before The Big Kahuna — shows a keen understanding of what’s important onscreen. In what’s essentially a three-character, one-set drama, he stays close on his actors, letting their characters carry a story that’s light on plot but long on developing our sympathy for them and our appreciation for their unique points of view. And this lets Rueff’s razor-sharp writing stand out, as it deserves to: one of my favorite lines has Phil complaining about the “damned conspiracy” of a world “full of clocks and mirrors” that taunt him as he gets older.

So we have a combination of incisive writing with actors who know what to do with it. Facinelli and DeVito more than hold their own against the intense Spacey — DeVito, in fact, turns in what may be his best performance ever — and watching these three men wheel around one another is what The Big Kahuna is all about. The running subtheme — what else to call a subplot in a nearly plotless movie? — about their approaches to love, women, and relationships is a good example. Newlywed Bob, a devout Baptist, is horrified that Phil reads Penthouse and at the married Larry’s casual admiration of women not his wife. (Phil, perhaps because of the loss of his marriage, places too much responsibility on the shoulders of a wife, deeming her responsible for keeping her husband from being an “asshole.”) At first, Facinelli only squints Bob’s disapproval of Larry, and Spacey only hardens Larry’s gaze to return the reproach — when they finally square off on the issue, they’ll be much more vocal in their dislike of each other.

Yes, The Big Kahuna is worth seeing for a performance by Spacey that will flatten you back into your seat, but not only for that. This is the kind of thought-provoking movie that will have you debating its take on life whether you agree with it or not.

Payback time
Kevin Spacey spends much of Swimming with Sharks immobilized, tied to a chair, bloodied and beaten. Good thing, too: this is the kind of role that brings out the best in him. And the emotional turns on a dime Spacey can maneuver make him perfect for the part of a capricious, tyrannical movie producer in this blackly comedic take on Hollywood.

Buddy Ackerman (Spacey), a senior executive producer at Keystone Pictures and third in the chain of command at the studio, is being held hostage in his own home by his assistant, Guy (Frank Whaley). Guy has been Buddy’s personal slave for the past year, responsible for everything from getting him coffee to getting him laid, and Guy has about had it up to here with the indignities to which Buddy subjects him. As Guy tortures Buddy in fitting ways — think paper cuts on the tongue from No. 10 envelopes — flashbacks show us “every insult, every offense” for which Guy is out for retribution, everything from taking credit for Guy’s ideas on projects in the works to ordering Guy to hunt down and destroy every copy of Time magazine in Los Angeles after the magazine calls Buddy, who produces superviolent action movies, “a blight on society.”

Buddy’s one-on-one with Guy is the half of the movie that feels like a stage play: two characters in one place, working out their differences like the uncivilized, dog-eat-dog, Hollywood savages that they are. Spacey is absolutely commanding from his position of apparent weakness, his Buddy managing to upset Guy more than Guy, as the one ostensibly in charge of the situation, would like. But in Buddy’s world of power meetings and crapping on anyone who’s not a senior executive producer, Spacey shines as well: the scene in which he, quietly deadpan, chews Guy out for bringing a packet of Equal with his coffee, instead of the requested Sweet ‘n’ Low, is hilarious, biting, and classic Spacey.

Swimming with Sharks is as fine a “revenge on the boss from hell” movie as the wickedly vindictive 9 to 5 (and as outrageous a satire on Hollywood as The Player). And Spacey makes Buddy as hellish a boss as you’d ever hope to avoid working for.

The Big Kahuna
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language
official site | IMDB

Swimming with Sharks
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R for some scenes of psychological/physical torture and pervasive strong language

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