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Big Night (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 1, 2015 | 1 Comment

Big Night (1996)Big Night is a humble but delectably sumptuous indie. Directed by actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott with a fierce passion for culture and cooking, it’s about the communal joys of a large meal, as well as the creative conundrums chefs face. Genial and suspenseful, though slightly overcooked, it’s a filmmaking feast too delightful to miss.

With a script by Stanley Tucci and Joseph Tropiano, the film (released in 1996, streaming on Netflix) is based around an intriguing central concept that builds and builds and then, almost like theater, plays out with a group of characters in a single setting. It’s 1950’s New Jersey, and two Italian immigrant brothers have conflicting views on their failing family restaurant. Sensible but unsatisfied Secondo (Stanley Tucci) has just talked with his banker, who’s posed an offer: if he doesn’t pay his debts by the end of a month, the restaurant closes. But his brother Primo (Tony Shaloub), the chef, is unwilling to compromise his cooking. When an American customer unhappy with her risotto requests spaghetti and meatballs as a side, Primo refuses. They don’t serve meatballs, and risotto doesn’t go well with spaghetti anyway.

Still, something has to be done. Well-connect restaurant competitor Pascal (Ian Holm) asks Secondo if he’d like Louis Prima, who’s coming to town, to dine at the restaurant for a publicity boost. He agrees, and Secondo and Primo gamble it all on one big night. Everyone’s invited: Secondo’s girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver), Primo’s flower-designer crush (Allison Janney), a persuasive car dealer (Campbell Scott), Pascal, and just about everyone else in the movie. Of course, there are complications: while Primo toils away on timpano pasta, Secondo lusts after fancy cars and cheats with Pascal’s wife, Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini). It’s only food, sure, but everything’s at risk.

The film’s central conflict (creative perfection at odds with the hard facts of life: money, changing tastes, competitors) will be all too familiar for artists, and plenty fascinating for everyone else. Secondo, with his relunctant business sense, seems like the sane one, but there’s something about Primo’s exacting love for the food of his home that’s utterly persuasive. It’s helpful that both actors seem indistinguishable from their characters: Tucci makes Secondo, practical in his work but less so in his personal life, a living, breathing protagonist. And Shaloub captures the tragedy of the Primo character: his aversion to change, his love for Italy, his difficult-to-watch perfectionism. The other actors have less complex roles, but still imbue their characters with personality and humanity (Scott’s deadpan wit; Rossellini’s subtle mix of anger and caring; Holm’s wild, deceptive charisma) .

Big Night (1996)Tucci and Scott are, for the most part, fine filmmakers. They’re old-fashioned storytellers with an understanding of and fascination with the most primal and complex parts of life (food, family, art, work, love), they get all-around terrific performances from an ensemble cast, and have a spot-on ear for jazz in film. Working with cinematographer Ken Kelsch, they create a look that’s both gorgeously delicate and boldly crisp. They employ long takes that last minutes to capture the ongoing pressure of the kitchen and the free-flowing beauty of the town. And then, for the dinner scene, they unleash a fabulous flurry of cuts and camera angles that capture the surprise, satisfaction, and pure joy of the final meal.

Like it’s characters, and the meal’s outcome, Big Night is not faultless. Tucci and Scott raise the story’s stakes higher and higher throughout the film, until the beach-set finale shows the melodramatic strains in the script (actors doing something operatic…who’da thunk?). It’s like a perfect dinner that ends with climaxes overdone last course…but finishes with a terrific dessert.

The final scene of Big Night, a near-wordless one-take five minute sequence too good to ruin, is an understated encapsulation of everything the film is about. Al dente.

Comments

One Response to “Big Night (Flack’s Review)”

  1. Anisa
    January 15th, 2015 @ 12:12 am

    Bravo!

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