FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 44, October 1999

 


 

Marty Fairbairn

Report from the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival

 


 

 

 

 

_The Big Kahuna_

Director: John Swanbeck

Screenplay: Roger Rueff, based on his play _Hospitality Suite_

Executive Producer: Gerard Guez

Producers: Kevin Spacey, Elie Samaha, Andrew Stevens

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Pete Facinelli

 

'If you talk to a person anytime with the idea of persuading him of something, it's no longer a conversation, it's selling something. It doesn't matter what you're selling; it's still selling.'

 

_The Big Kahuna_ is a small-scale but thoroughly engrossing meditation on male relationships and the search for meaning in a world too often focused on all the wrong things, a world where genuine friendship is a rare commodity, and yet a world where love can make unexpected in-roads. Industrial lubricant salesmen Larry (Kevin Spacey) and Phil (Danny DeVito), along with naive, inexperienced company engineer Bob (Pete Facinelli), gather in a Hotel Hospitality Suite to map out strategy for landing the primo account controlled by the man known as 'The Big Kahuna'. Cynical, smooth, fast-talking Larry could sell microwave ovens in Chernobyl, but world-weary Phil is beginning to have serious doubts about life on the road. Wet-behind-the-ears, shy Bob knows nothing about selling; he's just along to explain the technical aspects of their products, though it turns out he's selling something too, just not the same thing. The plan is to throw a reception in the suite for the client company's executives, including the Big Kahuna, but the plan goes awry when the big fish doesn't show, or so it seems. After everybody has left, Bob announces that he was talking all evening with someone who fit the Kahuna's description perfectly; the main man was there wearing someone else's name-tag so he wouldn't be bothered! But all is not lost; Bob has a hand-written invitation to attend a private party for the company's top executives, so Larry and Phil send him off with instructions to give the Big K. their business cards and tell him that they'd like to meet with him as soon as possible. But when Bob comes back empty-handed and reports that he spent the whole time talking to The Big K. about *Jesus*, the brown industrial lubricant really hits the fan!

 

_The Big Kahuna_ is a sensitively-acted film about depth, set in the shallow world of sales, where the pathetic enthusiasm of life-negating self-promotion collides with the mature empathy of life-affirming friendship and love. Spacey's glib, superficial Larry offers the ideal counterpoint to DeVito's quiet, mature Phil, while Facinelli's Bob is eager to please but suspicious of 'salesmen'. These three men are clearly at different stages of their lives: Bob is just starting out, nervous and unsure of himself, yet certain of his beliefs; Larry is a veteran, superficially sure of himself yet profoundly insecure; and Phil is coming to the end of a long road, reflective and yearning for something more meaningful. As Spacey said in a news conference, there is a sense in which these three are actually one man, at various stages of spiritual growth, with various approaches to the problem of meaning. Asked if the problem of spirituality in the postmodern world had figured in the writing of _The Big Kahuna_, screenwriter Roger Rueff, an engineer by trade who has spent some time in hospitality suites, said that one of the initial concepts involved in the original play had been his desire to examine the consequences for one's everyday existence of one's relative level of *faith*. What difference, if any, does it really make if one believes unconditionally, like Bob, or questioningly, like Phil, or not at all, like Larry?

 

Swanbeck has crafted a fine character study, letting his actors have their heads, concentrating on performance rather than artifice. Shot in a mere 16 days on a soundstage, the film's brisk pace and lively dialogue belie its claustrophobic setting. This is a film that is unlikely to get wide distribution, being anything but a 'blockbuster', but it deserves attention because it is a film that actually has something to say, and that is rare indeed.

 

 

_Simpatico_

 

Director: Matthew Warchus

Screenplay: Adapted by Matthew Warchus and David Nicholls from the play by Sam Shepard

Cinematographer: John Toll (nominated for _The Thin Red Line_, Oscar-winner for both _Legends of the Fall_ and _Braveheart_)

Cast: Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Sharon Stone, Catherine Keener, Albert Finney

 

_Simpatico_ is ostensibly a film about how a small moment in your life can effect the rest of your life, but it unfortunately slips and slides so much between pathos and black comedy that it ultimately loses its footing, coming to rest in a no-man's-land inbetween. Lyle Carter (Jeff Bridges) is the multi-millionaire owner of a horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky who is closing a huge business deal involving the sale of a horse named Simpatico, a Triple Crown winner. Vinnie (Nick Nolte) is an unkempt barfly, obsessed with the past, living in a ramshackle house near Los Angeles, the city of Lost Angels. Out of the blue, Vinnie calls Carter and asks him to come bail him out of a tough situation; Vinnie claims to have been charged with sexual harassment. Carter drops everything and flies to California where Vinnie tells him that, if he agrees to help him, Vinnie will hand over a box of incriminating photographs which prove that, 20 years before, Carter, Vinnie and Rosie (Sharon Stone), who is now Carter's wife, blackmailed a racing commissioner named Simms (Albert Finney) into going along with their horseracing scam by threatening to use photos of him in a sexual encounter with Rosie. These photos could ruin Carter, so he agrees to intercede on Vinnie's behalf with Cecilia, who supposedly had him arrested on harassment charges.

 

But while Carter is busy smoothing things out with Cecilia, Vinnie steals his car, his wallet, and his identification and flies to Lexington, posing as Carter, in order to try to win back Carter's wife Rosie and to wreak revenge on Carter, and redeem himself by handing over the incriminating photos to Simms, the man whose life they ruined 20 years ago by exposing his race-fixing. Carter realizes what Vinnie is up to and sends the naive, innocent Cecilia to Kentucky to buy Simm's silence. Carter stays at Vinnie's reminiscing about their past life and slowly unravels into a man like Vinnie, obsessed with the past and seeking redemption. The truth finally surfaces and Carter's latest scam is revealed with tragic results.

 

The film exhibits a flashback structure, cross-cutting between present and past versions of Carter, Vinnie, and Rosie. But despite valiant efforts by Nolte and Bridges, the mixture, to borrow a wonderful phrase from Leslie Halliwell, resolutely refuses to come to the boil. Stone's considerable talents, for example, are almost completely wasted as she appears only near the end of the film, and then only for hysterics. In the end we're far more interested in Finney's and Keener's characters, or even the younger versions of Nolte's and Bridges's characters, than we are in the strangely detached Vinnie, Carter, and Rosie. Warchus at a press conference alluded to the fact that a lot of the material in the film had been added by him and Nicholls to 'fill in the gaps' they perceived in the play. Perhaps they would have been better left unfilled.

 

 

_Fever_

 

Director/Screenplay: Alex Winter

Cinematographer: Joe DeSalvo

Editor: Thom Zimny

Prod. Designer: Mark Ricker

Sound: Coll Anderson

Music: Joe Delia

Cast: Henry Thomas, David Ohara

 

_Fever_ is a dark, atmospheric psychological thriller whose sparseness and economy of style buck the modern trend toward a cinema of greater and greater thrill-rides. Nick Parker (Henry Thomas, in a role that will make you forget he was that cute 4-year-old from _Close Encounter of the Third Kind_) is a struggling young artist who works at a local YMCA teaching seniors how to paint, a job he will be laid-off from at the end of the school term. Stressed out and near exhaustion, Nick finds solace painting at night in his seedy Brooklyn tenement room. One evening, he is distracted by noises from the apartment above. Nick goes upstairs to ask for a little quiet and meets Will (David Ohara), a mysterious new tenant who seems unaware of the landlord's assurances that the room would remain vacant so Nick could work undisturbed. Will's threatening presence and manner unnerve Nick, who retreats back to the safety of his room. But soon afterwards, the landlord is found brutally murdered. While most suspect a drunken former tenant who recently threatened the landlord, Nick begins to suspect the menacing tenant on the floor above. On the verge of mental and physical collapse, intrusions from his concerned middle-class family only aggravate him further. Soon Nick's irrational behaviour makes *him* a suspect in the eyes of the police. As his health worsens, Nick spirals into a feverish dream world of murder and madness where the line separating reality from imagination blurs.

 

_Fever_ looks back to some of the best psychological thrillers of the past such as _Gaslight_ (George Cukor, 1944) and _The Spiral Staircase_ (Robert Siodmak, 1945). And although there is nothing here we haven't seen before, it's seldom been done better or more economically. As in those two earlier classics, the frights here are all in the mind: shadows that seem to move on their own; half-lit faces, sinister snippets of dialogue, dim, claustrophobic set-design, doom-laden music; they all combine to pull us into Nick's borderline-delusional world. Director Alex Winter eschews special effects for film noir lighting techniques and slow, fate-imbued pacing. Fifteen minutes into _Fever_ we sense the sting in the tail, _Twilight Zone_ style, but by then it doesn't matter; we're too busy enjoying the suspense. I use the word suspense here advisedly. Hitchcockian suspense depends upon the audience knowing more than the characters about what's going on. Here, the surprise doesn't come until the end, but since we already strongly suspect it, it seems to me that the word suspense is justifiable. One can only hope that a fine effort like this will get the wide distribution it richly deserves.

 

Guelph, Ontario, Canada

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Marty Fairbairn, 'Report from the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 44, October 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n44fairbairn>.

 

  

 

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