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MOVIES ON THE EDGE

THE BIG KAHUNA (R) (96 min.) _ Kevin Spacey can do just about anything with his career now, after winning two Academy Awards for The Usual Suspects and American Beauty. Watching Spacey devote himself to a minor character study such as The Big Kahuna _ as producer and lead actor _ is a reassuring experience for film buffs, compared with Nicolas Cage's post-Oscar sell-outs.

The Big Kahuna is entirely a thespian piece, an adaptation of a stage play rarely straying from a one-room set. Under these circumstances, the play and actors bringing it to life are the thing. Roger Rueff's story of exasperated corporate lives has snappy dialogue and cagey character disintegrations to spare, and to temporarily thrill.

Spacey excels in these conditions; nothing to use as a performance crutch except physical tics, pinpoint timing and collaborators on the same aesthetic wavelength.

It is amazing to see the economy in his craft. Spacey can take a simple two-word phrase like "We've met," add the tiniest shifts to his eyes and mouth, and tell everything needed to know about the relationship. The Big Kahuna is packed with such sublimely telling moments for discerning viewers to cherish.

Spacey plays Larry Mann, a dynamic jerk selling industrial lubricants to clients he despises as much as his own methods. A convention in Wichita affords a slim chance to meet a Midwestern manufacturer _ "the grand Kahuna" _ who would be quite a financial catch.

Larry's longtime friend is Phil Cooper (Danny DeVito), who brushes off his partner's hubris better than rookie conventioneer Bob Walker (Peter Facinelli). Phil has retirement in mind, sick of the glad-handing business routine. Bob is a minnow among sharks, a born-again Christian in a job that doesn't share many of those values.

These three personalities can easily be regarded as the same men at different stages of success and resentment. In Larry, Phil sees the same blunt ambition that leaves him feeling empty now. Larry probably looks at Bob and sees the better person he left behind. Bob know that only the grace of God stops him from going the same way. Or, will it?

The Big Kahuna could be viewed as another Glengarry Glen Ross because of its tough language and take-no-prisoners approach to business. The two stories have one major difference, though.

In David Mamet's play, those real estate salesmen already sold their souls, they're just waiting to close the deals. The Big Kahuna is no less brutal, but much more optimistic and just as hard to sell. Projects like this excite the mind, not the box office. Only support from big Kahunas like Spacey keep them available.

Opens today at Tampa Theatre and Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar. B

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (R) (96 min.) _ Sofia Coppola's directing debut is a haunting, confident labor of love and dexterity. The titular suicides will be committed by the Lisbon sisters, five suburban teenagers in 1975. Their fates are sealed in the opening moments, yet the inevitable remains as alluring as Lester Burnham's American Beauty doom.

Why they die isn't fully explained, as many suicides go. Coppola is more interested in whatever romance the girls represent, and therefore what is lost. The film's point of view from down the street and across classrooms where boys idolize the sisters from afar. They can look, but not touch, since Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon (James Woods, Kathleen Turner) smother their daughters with old-fashioned values and restrictions.

Thirteen-year-old Therese (Leslie Hayman) is first to go, and grief becomes family imprisonment. The girls bristle, especially Lux (Kirsten Dunst), whose hormones are racing. She even reduces school hunk Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) to a stammering admirer. The prom is coming, and Trip's request to escort Lux leads to tragedy.

Sounds grim, yet Coppola handles the material with an affectionate blend of gauzy nostalgia and dark humor. Coppola adds playful, poignant touches, never preaching against teen suicide, but making it an obvious waste.

The cast is impressive, although Lux is the only sister who becomes more than a Marcia Brady icon. Dunst is a pleasure to watch, shifting between little-girl tantrums and cooing manipulation with ease. Rather than a martyr, Dunst makes Lux a missed opportunity.

Woods is wonderful in an unusually repressed role, a brainy nebbish who teaches teens but can't relate to them. Turner scores as the dour, reclusive mother, clinging to religion and modesty raising teenagers. Hartnett leaves a charismatic imprint. Warm, hindsight narration by Giovanni Ribisi is a satisfying touch.

Unlike her acting career, which began and pretty much ended with The Godfather, Part III, it will be interesting to see what Coppola does next as a filmmaker.

Held over at Beach Theater. B+

_ STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

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