Sunday, January 11, 2009

Work, Faith and The Big Kahuna

The movie The Big Kahuna touches on questions about faith, work and integrity.

Based on a play called The Hospitality Suite, written by Roger Rueff, The Big Kahuna is the story of three industrial lubricant salesmen as they try to land a big sale at a business convention. Two of the men are veterans—the nearly divorced and rather disheartened Phil (played by Danny De Vito) and the hyperactive, fast talking and smooth Larry (Kevin Spacey). The third salesman is a fresh-faced young man named Bob (Peter Facinelli), who has been teamed up with the old pros so that he can learn the trade.

The entire movie is set in a hotel hospitality suite, which the men have hired in order to entertain potential customers. But there is only one sale they are really after—the account of Mr Fuller who is the company President of the largest user of lubricants in the country—the man referred to by Larry as "the big kahuna". If they can snare his interest, and sign him up, then not only will their weekend efforts be worth it, but they'll be lauded by their bosses for landing "the big one". If not, they fear their jobs are on the line.

Two problems exist, however. One is whether or not he will attend. The second is—they have no idea what he looks like!

Industrial lubricant is clearly not a sexy product to sell. The vets know this and explain to Bob that really it's not lubricant they're selling--they're selling themselves.

Larry is crass. He’s also a cynic, and he constantly talks down to Bob. To his credit, Bob responds without becoming offended. However, as the conversation continues and Larry discovers Bob is "religious", he begins to bait him mercilessly. Bob struggles to relate to Larry and resorts to quoting Bible verses and making statements such as, "Maybe I just have different standards!"

Eventually, the party begins and the suite is alive with the sound of reps chatting over wine and nibbles.

Soon the function is over and the three salesmen are reflecting on the events of the night. Larry and Phil presume that the "big kahuna" did not turn up, but as Bob reflects on a lengthy conversation he had with one guest he realizes that this man was, in fact, the very Mr Fuller that Larry and Phil were looking for. Mr Fuller even left his business card with Bob.

Larry is excited. He quizzes Bob over what they talked about. Bob initially replies that the guest gave him a life history on the various dogs he had owned. But when Larry probes him further, Bob innocently mentions that all the talk about dogs gave him a "lead-in" to the subject of his faith. When Larry accuses Bob of manipulating the conversation for his own ends, Bob defends his actions. "I just think it's important to tell people what you believe."

"Yeah," mutters Larry, "but is it the interests of the company or our faith that's important here?"

Interrogating Bob further, the others discover that Mr Fuller has invited him to a private party. Bob must go, say Phil and Larry, so he can reconnect with Fuller. And also so that he can pass on Larry’s and Phil's business cards—and ask Fuller to call and make an appointment. Bob agrees to all this, and heads off to the party.

Back at the hotel, Phil is in his own, introspective world—struggling with the aftermath of a marriage breakup, a late mid-life depression, and even thoughts of suicide. His past choices haunt him and he is filled with regret. Over dinner he attempts to engage his best mate Larry in some of the questions of life he has been thinking about. Larry is hardly the kind of friend to confide such feelings and thoughts to. His shallow cynicism conceals a man who’s afraid to think too much about life, fearful of what he might find. Phil wants to talk, but Larry refuses to look beneath the surface. Phil even confides, "I've been thinking about God." He asks his mate, “What do you believe in, Larry?”
“I believe what I believe.”
"Which is what?
"How the hell should I know!"

Finally Phil confesses, "I always had this haunting feeling that I had some kind of mission on earth." However, when Larry inquires, "What kind of mission?" Phil can only admit, "I have no idea." He really is a searching but lost soul.

In due course Bob returns from his reconnoitre with Mr Fuller. It has been several hours, and Larry is eager to find out what has happened. When he asks how the conversation went, Bob replies, "Oh, we just talked."

"What did you talk about:"'
"We talked about Christ - about Jesus"

Larry snorts, "Did you ask about what kind of industrial lubricants Jesus would have endorsed? What did you say to him, Bob?"
"We just discussed things."
"So the subject of lubricants didn't came up?"
"Well, the nature of the conversation steered itself away from that." At this point Larry loses his cool and challenges Bob. "Who raised the subject of Jesus?"
"I did."
"Because it's very important to me that people, hear about Jesus.”
"Understanding that it was very important to us being here to talk with Mr Fuller about industrial lubricants, why did you choose to talk about Jesus instead?"
"Because I think it's more important." Bob stops and thinks through what he has just said. He tries to justify himself. "I didn't mention lubricants because I didn't want him to think that I -.-as using the subject of religion to cosy up to him. I didn't want him to think I was insincere.'
"But you were insincere."'

Bob tries to explain what he believes. "I don't see how we can have a conversation without talking about God."

Larry counters, “At issue here is not your belief in God or your desire to spread that belief; but what we're here to do."
"Which is what'"
"Industrial lubricants, Bob! We're not here to save souls!"

The increasingly heated conversation quickly dissolves into a shouting match with Larry yelling at Bob, and Bob responding angrily with Bible verses and the Apostle Paul! Suddenly the verbal aggression turns into a physical fight. Phil has to try and pull the two protagonists apart.

Awkwardly Bob apologizes and Larry says goodnight.

Phil and Bob are left standing in the suite. As Bob prepares to leave, Phil tells him he has a few things he wants to say. Top of the list is defending his friend Larry. Larry is an honest man. Someone Phil can trust. "You too are an honest man, Bob. Deep down you want to be honest. But the question you have to ask is. ‘Has it (honesty) touched the whole of' your life?’.
Bob responds, "What do you mean?"
"I mean that you preaching Jesus is no different than Larry or anybody else selling lubricants. It doesn't matter whether you're selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or real estate. That doesn't make you a human being. It makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to someone honestly as a human being, find out what his dreams are. Ask him about his kids. Just to find out. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it's no longer a conversation. It's a pitch. And you're not a human being. You're a marketing rep."

Larry and Phil are clearly individuals struggling with their own tragedies. But in many ways, from a Christian perspective, Bob is also a tragic character. Though his young, innocent life bears none of the deep disappointments, relationship meltdowns and depressing self-analysis that Larry and Phil have gone through, nevertheless Bob's narrow view and experience of life (and of faith) doesn't connect with his older colleagues. He tries genuinely to relate, but often ends up quoting a scripture which just "bounces off the wall", and causes him to be viewed as a naive and odd young man. Which he is.

His actions and words signal many questions—about integrity, about what it means to bear witness, and about the tensions inherent in serving both God and an employer.

Perhaps most of all, his well-intentioned attempts to convert Mr Fuller reveal that he too, like the others, views himself as a salesman. He is trying to "sell" Jesus. That's a problem for him professionally—it raises the question of how he can do his job with integrity. But it's also a problem in his relationships. His narrow understanding of what being a witness is all about means he misses real opportunities to express genuine compassion and care for his colleagues.

Source: Alistair Mackenzie and Wayne Kirkland, Just Decisions: Christian Ethics Go to Work (Christchurch, NZ: NavPress, NZ, 2008), 153-157.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: DVD Cover of The Big Kahuna.