Big Night (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

From time immemorial, the experience of eating a good meal has been regarded as one of life's most hedonistic pleasures. In a recent survey, more than 50% of Americans indicated they would rather eat a memorable dinner than experience a night of uninhibited sex. Motion pictures, ever reflective of the cultures that spawn them, have always recognized the potential for food-related stories. Films like Babette's Feast and Eat Drink Man Woman have sent audiences home sated. Now, there's a new entry on the menu: Big Night, the directorial debut of actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott. And, while perhaps not as sumptuous as the previously-mentioned entrees, it's nevertheless a tasty main course.

Events in Big Night reminded me of the so-called "Pizza wars" of the 1980s. With the advent of the chain Dominos, with their "we deliver anywhere for free" slogan, the entire business changed. Suddenly, local pizzerias were fighting for their lives. People, it seems, didn't care about quality. For the simple convenience of not having to get off the sofa, many preferred eating flavored cardboard to real pizza. In the end, a number of small outfits that elected not to implement free delivery went out of business, regardless of how good their product was.

Big Night examines a similar battle in a different setting. During the 1950s in the seaside resort of Keyport, New Jersey, two brothers -- master chef, Primo Pilaggi (Tony Shalhoub) and his maitre d' brother, Secondo (Stanley Tucci) -- open an authentic Italian restaurant called the Paradise. Not many customers frequent this small establishment, however -- there aren't free side orders of pasta, the lovingly-prepared food takes too long to reach the tables, and there's no live performer. Across the street is Pascal's Italian Grotto, which nightly draws full houses for its cheap, plentiful, familiar Italian fare and lively ambiance. In fact, many evenings after closing the Paradise, Secondo stops by to have a drink with his friend, the exuberant Pascal (Ian Holm, in a deliciously over-the-top role).

Not surprisingly, the Paradise is in financial trouble. Foreclosure is imminent. Secondo wants to make a few changes to broaden the restaurant's popularity, but Primo is against capitulating to "Philistines" who can't recognize good food from "the rape of cuisine" that is available at the Italian Grotto. For Primo, an uncompromising purist, "to eat good food is to be close to God." He tells his brother, "If you give people time, they will learn" to appreciate what the Paradise has to offer. The problem is, the brothers' time is almost up.

Pascal, who respects both Primo and Secondo, offers his help. He assures the brothers that when famous singer Louis Prima is in town next week, he will invite him and his band to dine at the Paradise. To celebrate the event, Primo and Secondo prepare the feast of a lifetime, aware that if everything doesn't go right, this one expensive evening could turn out the be their Last Supper.

Not only is Big Night a wonderful expression of the passion for food, and, by extension, for life, but it serves as a metaphor for the fight of independent artists against the establishment. Taking the film industry as an example, the Paradise could be the local art house with Pascal's as the multiplex. The parallels are plentiful, with customers at the more eclectic site complaining when they get something that's not the recycled fare they were expecting. The Italian Grotto caters to the masses, giving them a flashy meal without the originality and excellence that can be found at the smaller, less ostentatious location across the street.

The centerpiece of Big Night is, obviously, the big night -- everything from the preparation to the serving of the dishes comprising the multi-course dinner. Once the party gets underway, there's singing, dancing, drinking, and, of course, eating. Lots and lots of eating. For everyone, it's an evening to remember as Primo finds himself, Secondo wonders what he really wants from life, and the two brothers rediscover something they've known all along: that food, like love, is an unspoken, universal means of communication. This realization is cemented the next morning, when, in an unbroken five-minute take, Secondo prepares an omelet that he and his brother wordlessly share.

While Primo and Secondo anchor the film, the guests at the party add flavor and color to the night's festivities. They include Pascal's mistress, the sensuous Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini); Secondo's earthy, charming girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver, the best thing about Circle of Friends); Primo's would-be flame, Ann (Allison Janney); and a car salesman (Campbell Scott) who's always ready with a pitch.

The cast is wonderful, as is the direction by Scott and Tucci. The bond between brothers is developed in a believable way, with the usual mix of friction and wordless affection. In addition to their deft skill with light drama, the directors understand well-placed humor, and throw just the right amount of comedy into the mix to make Big Night fun without turning it into an outright farce. Watch for a visual joke featuring a lamp in Pascal's office and some wordplay about whether it can rain inside.

When it comes to seeing Big Night, two words say it all: Bon appetite!

Big Night (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1996-09-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1