Friday, November 29, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Big Night (1996)

Italian brothers struggle to make a go of their floundering restaurant in BIG NIGHT (1996), cowritten and codirected by star Stanley Tucci.

I first read about BIG NIGHT in conjunction with the release of Tucci's beautiful cookbook last year. It took me a while but I finally caught up with the movie, a "slice of life" set on the East Coast in the '50s. BIG NIGHT chronicles a couple of make-or-break days as the brothers' business is about to go under...but maybe publicity from a promised visit by Louis Prima will help.

Tucci, who codirected with actor Campbell Scott, plays the younger brother, an immigrant to the U.S. who wants the world to eat his brother's (Tony Shalhoub) wonderful cooking but must also convince his brother to make compromises for financial reasons. For instance, risotto is expensive and time-consuming to make and the local clientele doesn't seem to appreciate it...nor do customers understand why they can't get meatballs with their spaghetti. It's a constant battle between the chef's creative vision and the ability to keep the doors open while they wait for the restaurant to be discovered.

It's a fairly slow-moving 107 minutes and a bittersweet story, yet there are enough memorable characters and scenes to make the investment of time worthwhile. The quietly observed moments made me think a bit of the Japanese movies directed by Yasujiro Ozu which I enjoyed last summer.

Allison Janney (THE WEST WING) is wonderful as a florist admired by the very shy older brother, and Minnie Driver likewise makes an impact as Tucci's loyal girlfriend. His reluctance to commit to her is mystifying...and then we learn he's also carrying on with Isabella Rossellini. It was interesting that a character who is otherwise rather uptight and straight-laced turned out to have a messy personal life.

British actor Ian Holm convincingly plays the owner of a rival Italian restaurant, and Marc Anthony has a pretty much wordless role -- but a lot of screen time -- as the restaurant's jack of all trades. That's co-director Campbell Scott, son of George C., as the Cadillac salesman.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the best moments center around the preparation of food; this isn't a movie to watch on an empty stomach! The movie's final scene, which depicts the making and serving of an omelet in a single take, is completely wordless but really lovely, a reward for the patient viewer; I felt the movie was particularly worthwhile when it got to that moment. It will linger in the memory.

BIG NIGHT is rated R for language. The film also has some mature subject matter.

BIG NIGHT was released on DVD; it's now out of print and fairly expensive to obtain. However, it can be streamed via Amazon Prime and Netflix.

Some other "foodie" films which may be of interest: TORTILLA SOUP (2001), a movie I like and hope to review here in the future, plus MOSTLY MARTHA (2001), NO RESERVATIONS (2007), and JULIE AND JULIA (2009). Stanley Tucci was also one of the stars of JULIE AND JULIA.


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