Friday September 20, 1996
As delicately and deliciously prepared as the dishes it features, "Big Night" is a lyric to the love of food, family and persuasive acting. Written and directed by actors for themselves and their friends, it is a sensual feast that understands, as great chefs do, the virtues of taking its time.
Featuring a pair of competing Italian restaurants, "Big Night," like "Babette's Feast," "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" before it, capitalizes on the increasing overlap between the audiences for independent films and sophisticated restaurants. Putting beautiful food on the screen is a sure-fire way to everyone's heart.
Set in the late 1950s on the New Jersey shore, "Big Night" is savvy enough to toss in a clever bit of audience flattery. It unveils the Paradise, whose muted decor and emphasis on risotto and radicchio make it the dream restaurant for 1990s palates, and locates it amid Eisenhower-era philistines who insist on spaghetti and meatballs and don't understand when Secondo, the restaurant's maitre d', tells them "sometimes spaghetti wants to be alone."
Secondo is convincingly played by Stanley Tucci, best known for a recurring role in TV's "Murder One." Tucci originated the project, co-wrote the script with his cousin Joseph Tropiano, and got old-friend Campbell Scott to co-direct as well as take a small part. He even used the timpano, the signature dish of his grandparent's area of Calabria, as the film's culinary centerpiece.
Secondo and his older brother, Primo (Tony Shalhoub), have emigrated from Italy determined to make a success of the restaurant business in America. But their greatest asset, Primo's genius behind the stove, turns out to be a major impediment as well.
For Primo is a finicky perfectionist who refuses to lower his standards. Though continually shocked at American eating habits ("a criminal" is his take on a woman who orders spaghetti and risotto), Primo believes "if you give people time, they will learn."
Secondo, for his part, knows that time is fleeting. Eager for conventional, Cadillac-owning American success, he has to contend not only with his brother, but also an impatient bank determined to foreclose on the Paradise because of inconsistent loan payments.
Though it tends to be overshadowed by all the food, one of "Big Night's" strongest elements is the volatile, contentious relationship between Primo and Secondo, brothers who care enough to want to strangle each other. Smartly penned by Tucci and Tropiano (who won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance), their interplay typifies the film's wonderful ear for accented speech, for the unintentionally poetic musings of people struggling with a language not their own.
Making things harder for Secondo is the presence just down the street of the thriving Pascal's Italian Grotto, the ultimate 1950s Italian restaurant, bathed in red lights like a bordello and boasting celebrity photographs on the walls and the glamorous Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini) as the hostess.
Pascal himself, introduced flambeing a dish for dazzled customers, is an effusive torrent of bogus emotions, a hyperactive operator given to screaming "I love this guy" whenever Secondo walks in the door. Played with splendid verve and panache by Ian Holm, Pascal gives "Big Night" the jolts of energy it would be weaker without.
Though Primo hates him ("The man should be in prison for the food he serves" is his mildest rebuke), Secondo envies his rival's success, and when Pascal offers to help the brothers out by convincing celebrated musician Louis Prima to dine at the Paradise, he accepts, and preparations for the big night of the title are begun.
Also invited to this meal-of-meals is everyone the film has carefully introduced so far, including Secondo's girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver), the flower shop owner Primo is fond of (Allison Janney) and an unusual Cadillac salesman (an assured cameo by co-director Scott).
Though "Big Night's" plot points don't always pay off, the care that has been taken to establish and develop character add interest and human concern to the elaborate meal that follows. Because we care about the people who are present at the feast, as dish follows dish on screen we feel the film is sharing its bounty with us as well. Warmhearted at its core but too intelligent not to have a bit of bittersweet bite as well, "Big Night" carefully avoids the overindulgence toward performance that frequently sinks actors' movies. It's a mark of how successful this talented ensemble has been that when Primo utters the film's signature line, "To eat good food is to be close to God," no one will feel in need of further convincing.
Big Night, 1996. R, for language. A Timpano production, presented by Rysher Entertainment, released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company. Directors Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott. Producer Jonathan Filley. Executive producers Keith Samples, David Kirkpatrick. Screenplay Stanley Tucci & Joseph Tropiano. Cinematographer Ken Kelsch. Editor Suzy Elmiger. Costumes Juliet A. Polcsa. Music Gary DeMichele. Production design Andrew Jackness. Art directors Jeffrey D. McDonald, David Stein. Set decorator Susan Raney. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. Stanley Tucci as Secondo. Tony Shalhoub as Primo. Ian Holm as Pascal. Isabella Rossellini as Gabriella. Minnie Driver as Phyllis.