Stanley Tucci’s Big Night is a movie made by actors, for actors. It was directed by Tucci and Campbell Scott, then a pair of veterans who had yet to land a major hit, and has an cast full of people who were stars or were about to be stars. Beyond that, it’s a movie about the same sort of struggle that every actor, famous or not, goes through: the struggle between being a master of one’s art and a financial success. Plus, it’s one of the most delicious food movies ever made.
Tucci and Tony Shaloub (who was still six years away from his breakout role in the TV series Monk) play Italian brothers who own a restaurant on the Jersey shore in the 1950s. Shaloub’s Primo is a great master chef, but he has no patience for the philistines who come to his place and want nothing more complicated than spaghetti and meatballs; Tucci’s Secondo handles the business affairs, but he can’t keep the place out of the red. They conspire to create a huge party – a big night, if you will – that could turn their fortunes around.
The challenge that these characters face is, in short, how to keep one’s art pure while trying to stay afloat in a marketplace that constantly demands the cinematic equivalent of spaghetti and meatballs. It’s easy to imagine both co-directors having conceived of this movie as a result of that very conflict: Scott’s big break was in the studio-compromised, critically reviled Julia Roberts vehicle Dying Young, and although Tucci has a number of awards and nominations under his belt today he hadn’t achieved any of that in 1996. Each man had likely had to put up with a number of studio executives who had gotten rich off of the lowest common denominator, just like the rival restaurant owner played in the movie by Ian Holm.
From the opening scene, it’s clear that Secondo is going to have to learn a better appreciation of his brother’s mastery. However, much like the previous Movie Klub entry Adaptation, this is not a film which stands firmly behind the artistic desire. Primo’s shy courting of a local flower dealer (Allison Janney, The West Wing still three years in her future) illustrates how his prickly nature keeps him from being happy; he’s only able to make progress with her when he begins to teach what he does instead of just dismissing everyone who doesn’t understand him. Similarly, Secondo struggles with his inability to stay loyal to his American girlfriend (Minnie Driver) as he cheats with an Italian waitress at Holm’s restaurant (Isabella Rosselini). If it were easy to be a great artist and stay pure, the relationship between Primo and Janney would be entirely different; it were easy to be pragmatic and still do the right thing, then Secondo would not feel so conflicted around Driver.
As you might expect, the story culminates in the titular big night, where Primo’s mastery is on full display. The are a number of shots of delicious food, but the sequence is not merely “food porn,” as the camera lingers as much on the party guests’ enjoyment of the meal as on the dishes itself. The dialogue even serves to illustrate the meal’s fantastic quality, in ways both comic (“My mother was such a terrible cook,” one character moans) and dramatic (Rosselini exits the film with a line so heartbreaking that I refuse to spoil it). In the same way that a good martial-arts film saves the biggest displays of its hero’s mastery for the key dramatic moments, the big night gives us everything that the movie had been teasing us with up until then, and it’s as amazing as advertised.
And yet, in keeping with the themes of the film, the mastery of that meal isn’t enough. Big Night is one of those great screenplays that ends literally the only way it could end, given the motiviations behind the creation of the titular party. In the final scene, gracefully contained in a single shot, Secondo cooks a simple meal that is every bit as important as the previous night’s feast. There is some value in cooking for money and cooking for art, but the only thing which is going get these brothers through their trials is cooking for each other.
Reviewed by Mark Young
In fact this cast is so overqualified that Marc Anthony, who was not yet a huge star in English but who had a gold record and a Grammy nomination for his Spanish-language music, is in the film with just one line of dialogue. ↩