Big Night is deceptively ambitious. The film’s trailer would have you believe that it is a quirky rags-to-riches comedy. A film about two brothers dealing with the madcap ins and outs of running a restaurant. The film promises romance and outbursts of joy and laughter. And because this is a film that mostly takes place in a restaurant, it suggests there will be mouth-watering images of culinary delights. Something light and frothy, a feel-good entertainment that will leave you with a smile on your face, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
The movie is all these things, but it is also so much more. It is about the dreams and struggles of Italian immigrants. It is about family loyalty and the sacrifice that comes with it. It is about an artist’s passion and the commerce that tries to reign against it. And it all culminates to a very big night… and what a night it is.
According to writer Danny Macchietto, Big Night was clearly a labor of love for Stanley Tucci, who took on duties as actor, producer, co-writer, and co-director with fellow actor Campbell Scott.
Big Night was released in 1996 when independently produced films outside the studio system had found a permanent home in mainstream megaplex cinemas. That year independently financed films dominated the Academy Awards. Four independent films were nominated for Best Picture: Shine, Secrets and Lies, Fargo, and ultimate victor The English Patient. Jerry Maguire with Tom Cruise was the lone Hollywood production.
The year also saw the release of these great films: Bound (before the Wachowski sister’s made The Matrix), Hard Eight (before Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), Trainspotting (before Danny Boyle directed Slumdog Millionaire), and Citizen Ruth (before Alexander Payne wrote Sideways). This is only a small handful of great independent films that came of 1996, so a person can understand how any one of them might get lost in the shuffle. (EDITOR’s NOTE: Please do your homework on these titles. Some of them deal with mature subject matter and/or contain disturbing or graphic images)
Nineteen Ninety-Six was a year when the indie scene was at its peak with films written and/or directed by aspiring actors. These films were typically passion projects allowing an actor to gift themselves a good role. One that could put their name at the top of a casting list. It saw the likes of Billy Bob Thornton writing, starring, and directing Sling Blade and Jon Favreau writing and acting in the cult classic Swingers. The textbook example would come a year later in the form of a little film written by and starring the unknown Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting.
The Ninety’s were a golden era for Independent filmmaking, and Big Night fit right in against some of the most successful Indie Films of the period.
Big Night was clearly a labor of love for Stanley Tucci, who took on duties as actor, producer, co-writer, and co-director with fellow actor Campbell Scott. Tucci stars as Secondo, a restaurant owner that immigrated from Italy to New Jersey Shore with his older brother Primo. It is the 1950s. Secondo is the manager and Primo is the perfectionist chef of the restaurant they own together. Fittingly, Paradise is the name of the restaurant where Secondo has been chasing his American dream for two years.
The first hour is full of scenes from a dozen other movies, but it never falls into formula. Secondo is seen with his girlfriend that desires commitment and later, with his lover, the wife of the owner of a far more successful restaurant. We watch as he tries and fails to get yet another bank loan to help sustain his business. Another scene has him test driving a Cadillac, admiring something he can’t, yet, afford. These scenes are movie shorthand that sometimes reveal a lack of creativity; here, it highlights the filmmakers’ gifts to breathe new life into old tropes.
This sort of story practically begs for Secondo (Stanley Tucci) to be a womanizing, fast-talking charlatan, but the character is played straight and grounded with only the slightest hint that his troubles, both personal and in business, are taking its toll.
Tony Shalhoub stars in Big Night as older brother Primo to Stanley Tucci’s younger brother Secundo, which translate to “first” and “second” in Italian.
Minnie Driver plays his girlfriend, Phyllis. Even though Secondo is cheating on her, the film never paints her as the betty in the relationship. Secondo’s lover, played by classic beauty Isabella Rossellini, is the wife of Pascal (Ian Holm), the brazen restaurateur across the street. Her relationships with both men are ones of convenience, but in ways insightful and sincere she is the voice of reason in these overlapping love triangles.
The great Ian Holm, who passed in 2020, steals almost every scene he’s in. Before he played Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Holm was one of the most sought-after character actors from the 1980s thru the 1990s. He was perfectly at home in prestige Oscar films like Chariots of Fire, Shakespearean dramas, weird science fiction (The Fifth Element) and high-brow indies like The Sweet Hereafter and Naked Lunch. To loosely borrow a rule of thumb from Roger Ebert, “no movie featuring [Ian Holm] in a supporting role can be altogether bad.”
Pascal becomes a source of conflict for Secondo and his older brother Primo. He is unrelenting in his garishness, serving up Americanized Italian fare to his patrons as if it were cotton candy at a circus. His restaurant is packed with people every night and Pascal gives them what they want… noodles, red sauce, and meat covered in grated parmesan. Pascal mentors Secondo and wants he and Primo to come work for him, especially Primo.
The great Ian Holm … steals almost every scene he’s in. He was perfectly at home in prestige Oscar films like Chariots of Fire, Shakespearean dramas, weird science fiction (The Fifth Element) and high-brow indies like The Sweet Hereafter and Naked Lunch.
Primo is played by Tony Shalhoub and he gives the film’s most captivating performance. I asked my editor about his thoughts on Shalhoub’s performance in the science fiction comedy classic Galaxy Quest. He commented on his ability to walk that fine line between quirk and earth. Big Night is his calling card and perhaps his finest performance. It is a perfect vehicle for his chameleon like nature and delicate precision for deadpan comedy. No aspect of his versatility is left unexplored. This film allows him to be both the romantic and the idealist, skilled craftsman and tortured artist, a silent brooder and the biggest voice in the room. He does all these transitions seamlessly.
Primo and Secondo’s relationship is the heart of the film. The opening scene sets this up with lovingly methodic detail as they prepare a meal for a table of unappreciative “Philistines”. Two lines highlight all you need to know about the artistry being served from their kitchen.
“Not too fine. Sometimes you cut too fine then all you taste is the garlic”
“Sometimes spaghetti likes to be alone”
This movie understands artists, an artist’s process and how process is sometimes more important than the work itself. There are many aspirational lines in this movie that if read on the page would seem maudlin, but here they simply work.
Big Night is set in New Jersey of the 1950’s and the time and place serve as the perfect backdrop to this story about family, big dreams, and impeccable food.
The big night of the title is the film’s MacGuffin with Primo and Secondo preparing for a special event of which swing entertainer Louis Prima will be the guest of honor, generously provided by Pascal.
Big Night is not interested in lazy farce or cheap melodrama; instead, we get a sweet and earnest comedy with an assortment of colorful characters that come together to share in a joyful party. The kind of party where doing the congo line would be an embarrassment to no one, or when lip-synching to Rosemary Clooney is a foregone conclusion and upon having just finished a gluttonous bounty of Italian cuisine, to not lick the crumbs off your napkin is simply bad manners.
I will not spoil the events of what happens at that party and all that follows, but the final scene is one of the great endings. It is perfect in every way. A scene as difficult to master, perhaps, as the perfect omelet. Big Night is The Godfather of food movies.
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