A poignant and pointed look at Old World vs. New World values and a rueful assessment of the American dream, “Big Night” serves up a satisfying full meal of food with side courses concerning brotherly ties and competition. This unlikely collaboration between actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott is extremely well directed, making for a smartly made, delightfully acted period piece whose sensibility neatly straddles art films and the mainstream. With the mouth-watering food preparation and strongly recognizable emotions as the main selling points, this engaging indie has some built-in marketing advantages that a resourceful distrib should be able to parlay into tasty B.O. in wide specialized release. Many overseas territories are likely to gobble it up as well.
Set in an unspecified Italian community on the New Jersey shore in the 1950s, this winner of the Sundance Fest screenwriting prize foregrounds such emotionally accessible subjects as romantic deception, business betrayal, family conflict and gambling the future on a single roll of the dice. At the same time, its overriding concerns have to do with refinement vs. vulgarity, maintaining personal integrity, and the need to sell out or at least compromise one’s standards as the possible price of achieving popular success in the U.S.
Opening scene deftly states the dilemma faced by Italian immigrant brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci). Business is slow at their elegant but homey restaurant called Paradise, and one customer they do have is disgruntled because her plate of seafood risotto, cooked to perfection by Primo, doesn’t come with a side order of spaghetti and meatballs. Urged by Secondo to placate the diner, Primo explodes that she is a “philistine” and a “criminal,” but his brother the businessman explains that, in America, the customer is always right. Any viewer who appreciates this setup is bound to like the rest of the picture.
With a rare genius working in the kitchen, the Paradise is a culinary gem 25 years before its time, an establishment dedicated to offering utterly authentic Italian cuisine to a populace whose idea of an Italian restaurant is defined by checkered tablecloths, candles in chianti bottles, dishes theatrically flambeed tableside and opera-singing waiters. Exacerbating the brothers’ predicament, then, is the presence of just such a place down the street, the always packed Pascal’s, an Italian “grotto” where, according to Primo, “the rape of cuisine” is committed nightly.
Faced with foreclosure unless business turns around in a hurry, Secondo has a chat with the expansive, fast-talking Pascal, who offers to help by arranging for his pal, band leader Louis Prima, to bring his entourage to the Paradise for dinner. Certain that ensuing favorable publicity will put his place on the map, Secondo throws his every last cent into preparations for the feast, for which he knows his brother will create a masterpiece.
This buildup takes a bit more than an hour, during which the smooth but insecure Secondo has a spat with his good-natured American g.f., Phyllis (Minnie Driver); indulges in a quickie with his secret mistress, Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), who happens to be Pascal’s lady; befriends a droll Cadillac dealer (Scott), who agrees to help out for the big evening; and assuages Primo, who balks upon learning that the hated Pascal has masterminded the dinner. The repast goes ahead, although not exactly according to plan, and viewers who attend “Big Night” on an empty stomach can only hope that there is a good Italian restaurant nearby, as the details of food preparation, reminiscent of those in “Babette’s Feast,” will make them want to dash out to it the moment the end credits roll. The courses are formally labeled via titles — La Zuppa, I Primi, I Dolci, etc. — and the one that will have all foodies drooling is Il Timpano, a luscious-looking but little-known Calabrian dish in which pasta is baked with loads of other ingredients in a kettlelike pot. Smart specialized promotion in big cities could tie in with eateries capable of producing this creation, in which there will inevitably be eager interest once sophisticated viewers start seeing the picture.
The long dinner has the feel of a boisterous, life-enhancing European film, and there is a lightly poetic, bighearted, humanist approach throughout that reminds of early Fellini. At times in the early going, the pacing and dialogue delivery feel just a tad awkward, but generally the direction is supremely confident, never more so than in the final, masterful long take in the kitchen in which the drama’s primal conflict is quietly resolved.
Although Tucci, who co-wrote the fine script with his cousin Joseph Tropiano, has the nominal lead, pic increasingly becomes an ensemble piece in which all the roles are impeccably realized. Tucci’s Secondo is a stylish loser dedicated to maintaining a perfect facade even as everything beneath it may be crumbling, while the shy and obstinate master chef Primo is caught in sly nuance and understatement by Shalhoub.
Ian Holm, a surprising choice for the bantam cock Pascal, nails the irrepressible entrepreneur perfectly, while Rossellini, the only true Italian in the cast, Driver and Allison Janney, as the sweet object of Primo’s bashful affections, are all delightful.
Virtually all the action takes place in the Paradise or within a block or so of it, which creates the cozy community feeling of so many Italian films. Tech credits are fine.