An Appointment With the Big Guy … Dennis Quaid as Retrocop

An Appointment With the Big Guy

For his first film since his Oscar-winning performance in American Beauty , Kevin Spacey has chosen The Big Kahuna , an odd, independently produced little vehicle filmed in 16 days on the kind of low budget that wouldn’t cover the bottled water on most Hollywood film sets. The structure is simple: Three Midwestern businessmen representing an industrial lubricant company are attending a manufacturer’s convention in Wichita, Kan., in the hope of landing an account from a corporate honcho they refer to as “the big kahuna.” Other companies on other floors of the hotel are serving jumbo shrimp and oysters on the half shell, but Phil, Larry and Bob are stuck in an ugly hospitality suite the size of a closet offering cheese balls and carrot sticks. Business is bad, and their personal lives are even worse. The three-character film’s entire running time is devoted to their bickering, bellowing meditations on life, love, friendship, work, religion and business ethics while they wait for the big kahuna. It’s Death of a Salesman with hors d’oeuvres.

Phil (Danny DeVito) is the film’s most sympathetic character-a burned-out man in a midlife crisis who is tired of marketing and wants a new direction to confirm his self-value in what time he has left. Bob (Peter Facinelli) has been with the company only six months-newly married, devoutly religious, naïve, and young enough to still have principles. Larry (Kevin Spacey) is a ruthless cynic who sees people as functional and disposable; he is rude, crude, ascerbic and constantly goading Bob about his integrity. Larry defines reality by whether or not it appears in USA Today . Their sparring consists of razor-sharp monologues that force them to strip each other naked and defenseless, in business and in life.

In the plot’s only twist, it turns out that the big kahuna was actually present during the evening, wearing another man’s name tag, and developed a personal camaraderie with Bob. Now, the account of a lifetime is slipping through their fingers and their only hope is the kid Larry has made the butt of ridicule. The resulting reversal of character in all three men radically changes their own personal philosophies and the movie leaves them (and the audience) with plenty of fodder for rethinking priorities.

Firmly directed by newcomer John Swanbeck and forcefully acted by the three fine principals, The Big Kahuna is still more of a filmed stage play than a movie. It’s all about writing-lots of words about life and death and stress and the loneliness of the human condition-with excellent performers to make all the speeches with conviction. Mr. DeVito has the role of his lifetime as the man who learns to take a rest from wheel-spinning to stop and smell the roses. Mr. Spacey does what he does swimmingly: He curls his lip, sneers at compassion and swaggers with male self-delusion.

But the problem with the film is that the various monologues about honesty, regret and character do not connect in any empowering way. We leave wondering if anyone has really learned anything at all. The Big Kahuna has wit and intelligence, but it’s not remotely entertaining. It’s a film that often sounds like people with inflated egos reading self-help books aloud at Barnes and Noble.

Dennis Quaid as Retrocop

Space travelers and sci-fi nuts will probably flock to Frequency . Here is Dennis Quaid, terrific as usual, and ready for bear, playing a brave firefighter from Queens who dies a heroic death in a warehouse fire in 1969 while New York is in the grip of a serial killer who is mutilating and murdering nurses. And here is James Caviezel, the best thing to emerge from The Thin Red Line , playing Quaid’s 36-year-old son, a New York cop, 30 years later. When he dusts off Dad’s old ham radio, who is on the other line but Dad himself. Two worlds separated by three decades suddenly meld on a miracle frequency and history is changed.

The son reverses his father’s death, the father goes on a quest to save the dying nurses (one of whom turns out to be his own wife!) with information from the future, and it’s your move from here on in. It’s fun watching Dad, unable to convince the cops he’s getting his clues from his son 30 years later, and Junior, having a rough time proving he’s solving the crimes with advice from his father 30 years in the past. Then the movie goes haywire and everybody, living and dead, ends up at a baseball game, rich from investing in Yahoo! stocks.

My own advice is forget about the preposterous plot and treat Frequency like a two-hour episode of Twilight Zone . It’s fun, full of electrifying shocks and bloodcurdling action sequences. There’s never a dull moment, but when you figure it out, let me know. Rod Serling is probably somewhere, on his own frequency, unable to reach me with his own explanation of the plot. Directed by Gregory Hoblit, who made the excellent Primal Fear , the film features Richard Nixon, Dick Cavett, and songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Elvis Presley. You can’t say it lacks variety. Now if only the darned thing made sense.

Smashed or Sober, Sandy’s Predictable

Whatever you think of Sandra Bullock-pretty, smart, of limited range with a talent for picking lousy scripts, a heavy-hitter who rarely hits a home run-one thing is certain: she needs strong directors. Betty Thomas ( The Brady Bunch Movie ) is not one of them, and 28 Days , an aborted attempt to make a drug-and-alcohol-abuse rehab movie that opens fast and disintegrates into a lot of ho-hum shtik, proves it. Susannah Grant, who wrote Erin Brockovich , and cinematographer Declan Quinn, who shot Leaving Las Vegas , are first-rate pros, so Ms. Bullock is in good hands in the words and looks department. But haven’t we been down this littered path before? With Michael Keaton in Clean and Sober , and, more recently, Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted ? The predictability quotient overwhelms.

In 28 Days , Ms. Bullock plays the clichéd role of a booze-and-pill addict (a writer, natch) who never finds the time to write anything while making her appointed nightly rounds of bars and clubs and discos, slugging down martinis, dancing and passing out on schedule. When the movie opens, this dedicated party girl is late for the wedding of her starchy sister (Elizabeth Perkins) and ends up trashing the reception, insulting the bride in a drunken toast, falling into the cake and wrecking a limousine by driving it into a house-in her underwear. In lieu of jail time, she is sentenced by the court to spend 28 days at Serenity Glen, a rehab unit that looks like a country club.

Arriving angry, sullen, resentful and ready with dull quips for everyone who tries to help her, the star coasts on her mean-spirited sense of anarchy until an odd assortment of fellow patients who seem like escapees from a sitcom finally begin to show her how silly her life really is. Along with the requisite heroin addict (Azura Skye), sex fiend (Mike O’Malley), rum-soaked ex-doctor (Reni Santoni) and lovable gay guy (Alan Tudyk), there’s a new love interest (the usually craggy and creepy Viggo Mortensen, all buffed and cleaned up as a sensitive, addicted baseball star on the skids). Everyone hugs and chants (“Hey, hey, whaddya know, pills and booze have gotta go”) until Ms. Bullock forgets about caffeine and Quaaludes long enough to find a new meaning in her life while watching daily installments of a soap opera called Santa Cruz , a running gag that bores the audience and drives her roommate to a heroin-overdose suicide. (In the end, when Ms. Bullock graduates from Serenity Glen, mysteriously rehabilitated and a woman of purpose and wisdom after only 28 days, the star of Santa Cruz is being admitted as the newest patient.) The corn is as high as a giraffe’s eye.

This is potentially wrenching subject matter, but Betty Thomas can’t resist reducing the whole thing to the level of her own sitcom. It’s never clear what we’re supposed to feel (or learn) from any of this. In flashbacks, we see the cause of all the trouble-Ms. Bullock’s addictions were inherited from her mother-but instead of sympathy, my gut reaction was “Get over it and find a life!” The 12-step program of cleaning, climbing, singing, taking classes and bonding is a Reader’s Digest condensed version of how to confront a terrible disease. Meanwhile, there are nagging concerns, like what happened to the limo she wrecked, who paid for the house she demolished and will she still have a job when she returns to Manhattan?

The tightrope act between tragedy and farce collapses and the conventional solution (confront the problem, accept help and move on) is not very convincing. For honesty that touches the quick, take another look at Jack Lemmon in The Days of Wine and Roses . Now that was a movie that made you replace the bottles in the liquor cabinet with Diet Pepsi. After 28 Days , I just wanted to shout “Make it another double old-fashioned, please.”

Love and Mayhem in Rio de Janeiro

Bossa Nova , directed by Brazil’s famous Bruno Barreto (remember Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands , the film that made a star of Sonia Braga?), is a joyous affair, light as swan’s-down and deceptively potent as a caipirinha, the Brazilian cocktail that seems to be half sugar cane, half super-premium unleaded Texaco.

In this bright romantic comedy about nine people falling in and out of love in one of the most beautiful landscapes in South America, Amy Irving plays a widowed ex-flight attendant teaching English in Rio. Her life is invaded by a carnival of lovelorn misfits oblivious to cultural and linguistic snafus, including a middle-aged lawyer (played by the celebrated Brazilian star Antonio Fagundes), his divorced wife and her Chinese lover, a computer freak who finds an American boyfriend on the Internet by pretending to be a “Girl From Ipanema” beauty pageant winner, and an oversexed soccer champ. Everyone ends up in the hospital in a tangle of misdirected libidos and phony identities, while the confusions and passions of love ebb and flow to a samba beat.

With breathtaking shots of Rio after dark and Copacabana in the sunlight, and fabulous music by Eumir Deodato and Brazilian national treasure, the late Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim, to whom the film is dedicated, Bossa Nova is as lush, sensual and syncopated as a smiley-faced, never-ending samba. Mr. Barreto’s direction moves in the same rhythmic pace of a throbbing bossa nova, and the English and Portuguese-speaking actors are all screwy and delightful.

The music, the humor, the florid hothouse atmosphere and the Technicolor Carmen Miranda settings of modern Rio de Janeiro add up to a whopping entertainment that makes you want to head for the nearest travel agent and get the hell out of Dodge. A most pleasant surprise, indeed.