Film 2010 #19 – Big Night


Big Night (1996, dir. Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott)

Starring Stanley Tucci, Tony Shaloub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Alison Janney, Marc Antony, Isabella Rosselini, Liev Schrieber, Campbell Scott
The senses of smell and taste are hard ones in the realm of film. To convey them with an absence of any true manipulation of the nose and tongue seems almost impossible. That is why this small independent feature is so impressive. As each course of the traditional Italian meal is presented the aromas and flavors pop off the screen. But as much as Big Night is about food, it is also about film and art in general.
Set in the late 1950s, the film follows Primo (Shaloub), the temperamental chef and his brother Secundo (Tucci), his desperately entrepreneurial brother. Secundo struggles to make their small restaurant Paradise a success, which is not helped by the traditionalist attitudes and unwillingness to budge by Primo. A bit of a boon comes along in the form of their rival Pascal (Holm) telling them he will tell his friend Louie Primo, the popular Italian crooner, to stop at the brothers’ place when he comes to town. This sets Secundo into preparing a massive feast worthy of Prima’s lips. Secundo also balances his relationship with Phyllis (Driver) and his affair with Pascal’s wife (Rosselini).
The origins of this film came when Tucci was working on a film he absolutely hated. On the side, he worked on the script for Big Night with a friend and eventually went to Campbell Scott to help him direct and Oliver Platt to produce. Because of the subject matter and this being a film made by actors, thematically it is addressing the conflict between making profitable films and making artistically honest films. As easy as it would be to say that Primo’s unwavering stance on traditional Italian cuisine is honorable, it can also be flipped and seen as destructive. The film leaves the brothers in a very shaky place, quite aware that they don’t have much longer in their establishment.
The film is also a wonderfully clever comedy. There is a lot of language play with many of the major players being Italian immigrants. One particular exchange occurs between Tucci and Shaloub, when the latter uses the phrase “raining outside” and Tucci jokingly comments that it’s better than it raining outside. This joke is completely lost on the elder brother and very humorous back and forth results. The major feast the film is built around is also full of very funny moments, one customer in tears exclaiming that her “mother was a terrible cook” after partaking in Secundo’s masterpiece of a meal.
Big Night is a great quiet film made by people who truly love what they do. It comes across in every frame that this is a project that they worked hard on but enjoyed every minute of. And if you don’t have a craving for rissoto or the film’s chief dish, timpano at the conclusion than I would be shocked.
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