Resisting food metaphors is tough to do when it comes to describing Big Night (Samuel Goldwyn; 108 minutes; R; 1996), a subtly delicious comedy-drama about Italian chefs in the 1950s in which the film’s real flavors come from its twin emphases on details and characterizations. Yet unlike other efforts in the caloric cinema genre—think of Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate—Big Night boasts a darker, edgier complement to its on-screen bill of fare.
The Pilaggi brothers—aptly named as elder Primo (Wings’ Tony Shalhoub) and younger Secondo (Stanley Tucci)—are the fraternal forces behind the Paradise, a failing restaurant on the New Jersey shore. Part of the reason behind the restaurant’s inability to retain customers is chef Primo’s dogged concern with his painstaking cuisine; he labels one boorish customer a “philistine” because she cannot comprehend the inherent beauty of her risotto dish, instead preferring a simple order of spaghetti and meatballs. But with the bank foreclosure of the restaurant just around the corner, manager Secondo cautions the temperamental Primo that he doesn’t know “if we can still do things the way we want to do it.”
Secondo turns to rival restaurateur Pascal (Ian Holm) for monetary aid, but the allegedly well-connected Pascal has a better idea: Spend what little money the brothers have remaining on a lavish spread for Louis Prima and his touring band, a last-ditch effort that may hopefully pay off with reams of publicity. But viewers can sense things may just not turn out according to plan: In an eerie foreshadowing scene, Pascal’s eatery, decorated in garish reds, is a place where sauce-laden pasta is served to loud patrons, a singer shrieks Italian tunes in the background, and the first image of Pascal has him igniting a flambe dish like some kind of Faustian ringmaster.
Beyond the Pilaggis’ troubles, Big Night is a family affair in other ways: Actor Tucci and his cousin Joseph Tropiano co-wrote the script; Tucci’s mom Joan served as a food consultant to accurately capture the menu’s verisimilitude; and his sister Christine plays the awful Pascal singer. Tucci also co-directed with fellow actor Campbell Scott (the co-star of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, who also turns up in Big Night as a Cadillac salesman), which explains why their ensemble boasts such nuanced performances.
Shalhoub’s turn as Primo, for instance, is lovingly exact in the ways in which his proud chef does a simmering burn whenever people cannot appreciate the time-consuming process that goes into his craft. The actor also scores with his halting romantic overtures toward a florist (Allison Janney), as Primo also takes what he feels is the right amount of time to pursue the relationship. On the other hand, British actor Holm is enjoyably over the top with his interpretation of Pascal, who’s given to scene-stealing dialogue such as “Bite your teeth into the ass of life!” Yet Holm’s broad acting makes sense, for his restaurateur has clearly embraced America’s worst traits—he’s obnoxious, ruthless and always smiling when sticking the knife into a competitor’s back—with nothing but a heavy accent to differentiate himself from his stateside counterparts.
Big Night has much to say about the sad effects of cultural assimilation of its characters, specifically how the American dream became the immigrant’s nightmare; “That’s why we all came here,” Pascal yells at one point. “It’s the land of fucking opportunity!” Indeed, there are poignant moments when Primo’s adherence to tradition flies directly in the face of such Fifties homogenization; when a mouthwatering timpano specialty takes up the entire space of the movie screen, audiences will become immediately hungry, yet also nostalgic for the types of regional foods rarely seen on today’s menus.
Two other side dishes—actresses Minnie Driver and Isabella Rossellini as Secondo’s rival amours—add to Big Night’s seasoned pleasures. Driver (Circle of Friends) is just right as the American girlfriend who innocently wonders why Secondo doesn’t go beyond heavy petting, while Rossellini has a droll deadpan delivery to accompany her sexy mistress. And plenty of atmospheric tunes from Prima, Rosemary Clooney (“Mambo Italiano”) and others adorning the soundtrack (also available on TVT Records) enhance the feeling of “Abbodonza!” this movie projects. Big Night’s deceptively simple recipe for success—keep the characters proportionately real, and the comedy and drama will follow—results in a scrumptious salute to the art of the meal.