The Theme of Envy in The Big Kahuna


What we have looks pretty good until we see someone else with something better. Aristotle defined envy in his Rhetoric “as the pain caused by the good fortune of others.”  In The Big Kahuna Larry is in excruciating pain when Bob gets a lucky break but fails to capitalize on it. Often envy involves more than just wanting to possess something; it extends to having negative feelings towards the person who has what we want.

Three salesmen are at a convention to sell lubricants. They prepare a party in their hospitality suite in hopes that Mr. Fuller, a possible client, will come to  their party. Larry and Phil are experienced salesmen who have been in the business for some time while Bob is at his first convention. Making contact with Mr. Fuller is critical to their mission at the convention.

In the course of the evening the new guy, Bob unintentionally meets Mr. Fuller. He later explains to Larry and Phil that he talked to Fuller for some time but never mentioned their product or company. Instead they discussed God.  This appalls Larry who is goes into a tirade about Bob’s responsibility to the company. Larry is envious that Bob is in a position to make a sale he’s spent his whole career hoping to make. He resents that Bob is the one with the contact but joins with Phil to try and prepare Bob to approach Fuller again to make the sale.

Larry knows exactly what he would say and how he would approach Fuller in Bob’s position. Bob resists their advice. He feels that he would be insincere and manipulative to bring up business after the spiritual discussion he’s had with Fuller. Bob, though he is a salesman sent to the convention to sell, places his idealism over his obligation.

Larry is utterly committed to his job. He’s divorced. He’s sold out. He has focused all his energy and compromised other areas of his life in order to rise in his career.  Bob is young, married, good-looking, morally intact and in the position to make the sale of a lifetime at his first convention.  Larry’s entire sense of worth is tied up in the very thing that Bob so easily dismisses. For Larry convincing someone to buy his product has nothing to do with the product. It is about his power to convince someone else to do something he wants them to do. Success in this area makes him feel important. It affirms his worth to himself.

Larry ruthlessly attacks Bob. He makes fun of his naiveté and attacks his lack of experience. He is convinced that his jaded view is correct and that Bob’s outlook is ridiculous. Larry keeps harping on how unfair it is that that Bob should happen upon the opportunity that he believes should have come to him or to Phil.

Phil, the other salesman, feels used up. His marriage is in trouble; his enthusiasm for the job is waning. Phil is in a place where he is examining his life and thinking seriously about the person he wants to spend the rest of his life being. Phil knows there has to be more and not only wants to find it for himself but also wants Larry to find it as well. From this perspective Phil speaks to Larry and to Bob. It is Phil who holds the wisdom that both men need to progress in their journeys.

He has worked with Larry for years.  He loves his friend and sees beneath Larry’s jaded exterior. It is interesting that Bob is the religious character in this movie but it is Phil is who sees Larry as a person who needs redemption while Bob merely condemns Larry for his vicious attitude. Phil sees past Larry’s envy to the insecurity and lack of self-worth that drives it.  Larry and Phil know that they are unsatisfied and are struggling to figure out where to go next. 

Phil also sees through Bob’s seeming integrity to his point of need. “I’m saying you’ve already done plenty of things to regret, you just don’t know what they are. It’s when you discover them, when you see the folly in something you’ve done, and you wish that you had it do over, but you know you can’t, because it’s too late. So you pick that thing up, and carry it with you to remind you that life goes on, the world will spin without you, you really don’t matter in the end. Then you will gain character, because honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself across your face.”  While Bob is focused on worthy ideas and heavenly priorities he cannot or will not see the spiritually wounded man in the same suite. Bob appears completely satisfied with his life and even states that he regrets nothing. Unfortunately his lack of awareness and unexamined certainty presents a faith that, without the presence of regret, seems to negate the need for redemption. Ultimately Bob’s shallowness is revealed.

Phil explains character

There is no villain in this movie, only three fallen men who need redemption. Phil’s ability to help the other two see one another is the beginning of addressing both Larry’s envy and Bob’s pride.  At the heart of this movie is the truth that none of us is good enough and that satisfaction is not to be found in shallow places.

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