BIG NIGHT is a charming little gem. It isn't about much of
anything, and yet the emotions are more genuinely expressed that many a
more pretension endeavor. This is not a particular important picture,
and it will certainly not be much of a money maker, but it is full of
heart and some nice pieces of acting.
Except for a little before and after, BIG NIGHT happens over a
single day and night. In New York in the mid-1950s two brothers, Primo
(Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), are new immigrants from
Italy. They own a soon to be totally bankrupt Italian restaurant
called Paradise. Primo is a great chef, but he only wants to make
authentic Italian food like risotto whether the customers like it or
not. Primo's philosophy is, "to eat good food is to be close to God."
In the opening scene a woman tries to get a side order of
spaghetti and meatballs since she hates the risotto she has ordered.
Primo refuses since he would never put meatballs in spaghetti and would
certainly not serve the woman a second starch dish. Secondo runs the
restaurant and pleads with him to give their only customer what she
wants since the restaurant is going broke afterall.
Across the street is an Italian place owned by their friend Pascal
(Ian Holm). He serves his customers spaghetti with lots of meatballs
and has ostentatious flaming dishes for show. Helping him is his
beautiful wife Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini) who is having an affair
with Secondo. Secondo is dating Jill (Minnie Driver) who is a teller
at the local bank. Secondo refuses to have sex with her until he is
more financially secure. Since her bank is calling in his loan, the
future looks bleak.
Pascal advises Secondo, "give people what they want, then later
you can give them what you want," but Secondo can not get Primo to
change the menu even a little. Pascal sees life much simpler. As he
explains, "I am a businessman. I am anything I need to be at any
Pascal manages to give Primo and Secondo a last chance. He says
he can get Louie Prima, the famous jazz musician, and all of his band
to have dinner at the Paradise Restaurant. With the subsequent
publicity, people will flock there. Almost all of the movie is about
the preparations for and serving of the food on the BIG NIGHT.
In its lush and colorful food photography and in the reverence it
gives to food, it is reminiscent of that great film, LIKE WATER FOR
CHOCOLATE. The cinematography is intimate and the sets, especially of
the wood paneled restaurant, are extremely authentic. Paradise is a
church for food, and the actors become the holy choir. The people who
designed the food for the film deserve extra credit. You may want to
go to a great Italian restaurant after seeing the picture, but don't.
You would be disappointed. This food is heaven - you would only get
food for mere mortals.
The acting by Tucci is excellent, but Shalhoub steals the show.
Think of Primo as the Gandhi of chefs. I kept expecting a scene with
him lighting incense sticks to the food and praying to it. I like
Holm, but had trouble hearing him speak with an Italian accent.
Driver, from CIRCLE OF FRIENDS and the Masterpiece Theater TV show "The
Politician's Wife," is a great actress, but her role here is secondary
does not allow her to show off her talents. Only Rossellini is
miscast. Her performance seems out of another movie. Finally, in a
comedic part Campbell Scott is good as a Cadillac dealer. As those of
you not alive during the 50s may not be fully aware, to own a new
Cadillac then was proof positive of your success in life.
The direction and the script is ready to take things slow and
natural. Many scenes have little dialog and in fact there is a
reasonably long epilogue with no words at all just food preparation and
consumption. All of this notwithstanding, the films is never boring
nor the pace too slow. There are tragedies, mainly small, along the
way, and the actors, particularly Shalhoub, with few words and great
facial expressions manage to move the audience.
BIG NIGHT runs about an hour and three quarters. It is rated R,
but is one of the softest R I can ever remember. There is no sex,
nudity, or violence. This is a gentle film, but there are just a few
bad words and one them happens to be the F word hence the rating.
Although 99 per cent of the film is in English, the F word appears in
the Italian part with the English subtitles. Except for that one word,
the movie would be PG. I think the film would be fine for any kid who
is interested in it. I recommend the picture to you and give it ***.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes