Big Night (1996)
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`Big Night' is a movie not so much about food and Italian cuisine but rather about cultural encounter and identity crises that most immigrants face upon their arrival in the new homeland.
The story cleverly unfolds the multi-personalities of an immigrant's character in a metaphorical representation. A character that is overwhelmed in a fierce inner struggle, constantly striving to reach a desired compromised. The big night is a milestone in an eventful and often chaotic journey. It's a moment for close encounter with reality.
The movie is about two brothers, Italian immigrants, trying to run ` Paradise' a gourmet restaurant. Primo is an uncompromising chef, who wishes to educate Americans to appreciate `The Real Italian Food'. Despite the obvious failure of their business, he stubbornly defies his customers' conception of Italian food. He simply cannot stand it when, a customer wants her risotto, painstakingly prepared seafood, with spaghetti and meatballs, and he calls her a `Philistine'.
While the brothers are battling for survival, Pascal, another Italian immigrant one generation older, runs a busy restaurant that fulfills the American conception of Italian food. Pascal is the kind of immigrant who has a clear mission statement. He is here to do business.
Secondo, the younger brother, who is in charge of management and accounting tries to convince his brother to give in and accept the business realities. He is in favor of changes to save the `Paradise'.
Primo the gifted chef, Secondo the manager who wants to run his business with the Rules of the Game, and finally Christian that mysteriously and quietly is there for the brothers in times of need, all are three aspects of the same person. A person lost and exhausted in the `Paradise'. Torn apart between Pascal who runs an enormously successful Italian restaurant across the street and Alberto the isolated barber who preserved his old social values.
The Movie begins with a scene that shows Christian in deep thought looking at the sea. We will see him often around the brothers throughout the movie. He hardly says anything. However, his presence has a mysterious significance yet unrevealed. Perhaps, an aspect of the immigrants' character that is more fundamental than the ones affected by cultural differences.
Primo represents that side of the immigrant that's terrified by the might of the new culture and the impending changes that eventually unravel. He is reserved, strongly opinionated and scared that he may lose it all in this journey and end up `eaten up' by the new culture.
Secondo shows us the willingness of the immigrant for discovery, understanding and adaptation to the new social values. He looks up to Pascal for advice and, as Gabriella (Pascal's mistress) puts it, sees him as a `lighthouse' in a raging sea.
The night of the feast is an important milestone in this evolutionary process. It is an opportunity for Primo to show us what he possesses and how precious those possessions are. At the same time, it's a moment to face the reality that `Paradise' is in trouble and without a compromise it won't make it.
The film ends with Secondo, Christian and Primo eating three scrambled eggs the morning after the big night. Scrambled eggs and bread, a basic food in both cultures, implying a retreat to a common ground, for further evaluation and perhaps some adjustments. The movie, quite appropriately, doesn't reveal the direction that our immigrants will take. However, it beautifully displays the quiet coexistence of three personalities in a more persuasive journey!
I wonder if `the Big Night' is an adaptation of Freudian Psychoanalysis. If so could you identify `Id', ` Ego' and `superego'?
The focal point of the film is the chemistry between the characters of Stanley Tucci, playing a hard-working, pleading, frustrated restaurant owner, whose head carries only logic and a goal for success, and Tony Shalhoub, his brother, whose aggressive passion is for the food he cooks and the mystery and subtext within it, yet his interaction with people is painfully shy. Their clashes of pride, their battles with each other's completely different perspectives, and yet their sharing of the same dream are what drives the story.
A lot of the film's humor comes from the hilarity of Ian Holm. Ian Holm, a stiff-limbed Englishman, plays here a loud, very animated, hot-tempered Italian entrepreneur with a seamless and wonderfully entertaining delivery of an Italian accent and Italian movements. It's my favorite performance of his because I had never before imagined that he would play a role like this.
Big Night is not a masterpiece nor do I think it was even meant to be one, but what it is is subtle and interesting for purely human reasons. It's soundtrack is also a fantastic celebration of Italian music.
Tucci and Scott said they studied a lot of film masters, and it shows here; there's nothing that screams "first film." Instead, they take their time telling the story, and setting up characters we care about, even Pascal, the rival restaurant owner. And a lesser movie wouldn't have had the scene between Isabella Rosellini and Minnie Driver which is quiet yet moving, like the rest of the movie. The food scenes live up to the hype, and that final scene is moving.
Layer One: Food. Even though it is more than a food movie, let's not rush past that part too quickly. The central event of the story is a meal prepared for celebrity guest Louis Prima, whose anticipated presence promises to save the struggling restaurant of the brothers we know simply as Primo (Tony Shaloub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci). Primo takes his food seriously and so should we. Every shot of it is beautiful and fills the viewer with longing and desperation at not being able to smell and taste every enticing course, even when another bite doesn't seem possible! Layer Two: Fraternity. The relationship between Primo and Secondo is anything but easy, and as is often the case with those closest to us, the thing each brother values in the other is the very thing that drives him crazy. Primo's uncompromising commitment to his art is, at least in aspiring businessman Secondo's view, the reason why they are struggling, in comparison to nearby competitor Pascal (Ian Holm) whose circus of Italian culinary cliches is full every night. Tucci's ability to capture that quiet desperation of a man torn between family and success rings true with anyone who's felt the competing pressure to succeed and remain true to oneself. Layer Three: Creativity. How does one whose only goal is to make something beautiful succeed in this world? What if no one else appreciates that beauty? What if the compromises one must make to produce that art risk the soul of the artist? There aren't a lot of interviews about this movie wandering around the internet, but I suspect that for Tucci, who co-wrote and directed the picture with Campbell Scott, this was a driving passion behind the movie in the first place. Primo's commitment sets up much of the movie's comedy-from railing against a patron who wants a side of spaghetti with her risotto to mocking his brother's suggestion of removing said risotto from the menu altogether. But here too is the bitterness of the picture. The older brother is free to pursue his art, generally unencumbered by concerns about how well it sells, but we see the cost of such purity in his brother's humiliating visit to their lender and the frantic, last-ditch attempt to save the restaurant via the titular event. Layer Four: American Culture. On one level Primo's is the quest of every artist, but the promise of the American dream drives-at some points, literally-the whole movie. We never see the two brothers leaving behind the old world (although it is present in the movie). We never see them getting off the boat or hear the discussions that motivated the trip in the first place, although we get the distinct impression that this was Secondo's project from the beginning. But the promise of America that the film suggests seems to be one where the only path to success is to become the version of you that the culture is prepared to accept-the stereotype, the cliche, who serves meatballs with all spaghetti and doesn't blink twice placing a plate of risotto alongside.
Without divulging too much, there is another meal after the main one. But what's most striking about it is its simplicity-both in content and in form. It was on my second viewing that I got a sense of the thought behind the film and the injustice that it doesn't have a bigger following, but maybe that's just the cost of art in America.
N.B. There was another reason for the timing of this review: the impending release of Tucci's The Last Portrait. If it's anything close to the quality of Big Night, we should all be buying a ticket.
It's an underseen movie, but one whose reputation grows year after year, with good reason.
Pascal, as a friend of Secondo, offers to assist him. It seems that the great and flamboyant Jazz entertainer Louie Prima is in town. Pascal has his picture on one of his restaurant walls. Pascal, who claims to be Prima's friend, offers to send Prima and his band to the Paradise for dinner and thus drum up publicity for the failing enterprise. So it is that the two brothers agree to work like blazes to prepare a feast for a king: the big night. Obviously much movie time is spent in food gathering and preparation. And what incredible courses that develop! There are the triple risotto, the splendid timpano (with sausage and eggs and meatballs and pasta), that sumptuous fish, the roast pork! Besides being an epicurean's delight the entire dinner scene is fun!
Although some complain about the ambiguous resolution, the movie has important messages, like the difficulties experienced by immigrants, the cultural clashes, the process of adaptability. The scenes are intimate; for instance, note the elegance of the little restaurant, including the kitchen. The feel of the 1950s is there. Notice those large-finned Cadillacs! How about that music! Note that classic cool scene at the end, where the eggs are cooked in real time with nary a spoken word. Both Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci are so good with their hands that they make one believe that they are great chefs! Maybe they are good cooks after all. The supporting cast includes Minnie Driver (Phyllis) and Isabella Rossellini (Gabriella), both of whom look as dazzling as they ever did. Marc Antony as Cristiano also demonstrated his acting skills. And top kudos to co-directors Stanley Tucci (again) and Campbell Scott.
SPOILER: I could not resist but take a peak at the cast to see if a supposed main character was going to show up. As I did not see his name, I suspected what the movie's outcome would be.
One recommendation: Don't watch this one if you are hungry!
"Big Night" tells of two Italian brothers trying to succeed as restaurateurs in the 1960s. The bulk of the movie revolves a single "big night" in which they unleash their finest dishes in a culinary extravaganza.
The leads, Shalhoub and Tucci, are joined by Ian Holm (depicting a rival restaurateur) in a really memorable set of performances. All the minor supporting characters are equally endearing and real-to-life. There is a lot of attention given to the food and to its preparation, and the cinematography used to actually depict the meal (and the music superimposed onto it) is fantastically enjoyable. It's like the dishes are actors or characters in the play! The movie's final scene is perhaps deserving of the all-time hall of fame. It plays out over several minutes of complete wordless silence, yet it makes such a lasting impression. Ultimately the scene shows that the movie is not about the food or the striving for success, but about the relationship between these brothers, and that the relationship will outlast any of the trials they are undergoing, no matter how severe.
If you insist on a tidy ending that resolves all the issues, don't look here because the ending is completely hanging. Yet somehow I found it satisfying nevertheless. You'll find yourself recalling scenes and lines from the film for weeks to come.
Stanley Tucci is the driving force for the movie in front of and behind the camera. It's brilliant actors letting other brilliant actors do great work. The characters jump off the screen with their humanity. The brothers' relationship is absolutely fabulous. It is the most delicious of movie making.
Tucci stars as Secondo, the younger sibling of two Italian immigrant brothers living a New Jersey who own a restaurant. Secondo is the business part of the duo, the slick guy who owns a fancy Cadillac. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is the older brother and the master chef who has the gift for creating a plethora of culinary delights that attract people in the area to try his delightful dishes. While serving a seafood risotto to one of his patrons, the patron complains that the seafood is barely visible and that her side dish of spaghetti, didn't come with any meatballs. (One of the best quotes in the movie is..."Sometimes spaghetti wants to be alone").
Primo shrugs to the fact he believes that he is serving to a pack of Philistines. But to be honest, the Philistines are licking their chops over a Pascal's diner across the street. Pascal was played gracefully by Ian Holm, who understands that the customer is always right no matter what. The rivalries between the the opposing restaurants is absolutely astounding.
When financial troubles starts brewing in The Paradise, Secondo turns to Pascal for financial but fends off from working with him. Pascal suggests to Secondo to prepare a no holds barred "big night" that will surely attract customers. Pascal offered to invite a friend of his named Louis Prima, who will eat, indulge and enjoy the atmosphere.
The movie lifts off to this "Big Night" (which also has a side-story of Secondo's troubled love.
During the banquet scenes, "Big Night" shifts the attention to its audience with a wonderful array of savoring food that will make your mouth water. The cast which also stars Isabella Rosselini, Minnie Driver and Allison Janney nails their respected roles to perfection. The cooking scenes look stressful, but is handled in a very subtle fashion.
After the big night, many truths have been confessed, partially because it's hard to betray after such a poignant experience. If these scrumptious dishes doesn't manipulate you into walking out of the theater after the movie, to go out afterward to eat in an Italian restaurant, then what's wrong with you.
What makes the film so impressive is the small things it has to offer. Whether Primo using his cup to tamper coffee grounds to making an omelet, the movie nails all the scenes to perfection. Even if the DVD has little to offer. The film itself will likely to whet your appetite.
Anyway, it's a movie that I recommend to everyone. This was certainly a great introduction for me to both Shalhoub and Tucci. I still enjoy thinking about it. Also starring Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, Liev Schreiber, Ian Holm and Allison Janney.
`Eat Drink Man Woman' works because the chief chef is wholly dedicated to living his life through his food. That food has purpose: it expresses his love for his daughters. He doesn't make food for the food, but for the consumers of the food. The food is a direct link between souls. Ang Lee directs his film the same way: he is dedicated to the art as a matter of pleasing us. It is a gift from him to us.
This film, `Big Night,' is different. Not a matter of dedication but of obsession. Not a matter of pleasing us, but pleasing the chef and directors/actors. As with the food and film, we are taken on a fun ride as everything Scott and Tucci can do is done. The camera swoops as if dePalma wrote the recipe; pairs banter as if Mamet was writing; props are used as if Ridley were in charge.
But nothing here is inspired, it is all by the recipe.
It is because of this obsession that I re-watched this. In the last two days, I've seen Shalhoub in `Thirteen Ghosts' and `The Man Who Wasn't There.' in all three of these cases, the filmmakers depended on his excess. But I think this case is different, because actors are in charge, and they appreciate this sort of obsession: just like we are supposed to admire Primo.
But there's nothing really beyond that - the problems faced by the two brothers, Stanley Tucci (who also directed) and Tony Shalhoub, are the same we've seen time and time again. Tucci, playing the self-centered but occasionally "adorable" (well I think that's what he's aiming for) Secondo, cheats on his girlfriend and paces around depressingly, presumably too hung up on the monetary problems he faces when he and his brother's restaurant looks like going bottom up to care about much else. And his brother Primo, played by Shalhoub, is so little more than a device to elicit more sympathy for the familial pains that they must all surely be feeling - unfortunately, it's hit and miss at the best of times.
Instead, the film's only moments of real resonance come in the humorous asides of the communal gatherings in the restaurant itself, relying not on the chemistry of the two brothers, but instead on the audience's preconceived notions of family and community and the occasional joke that actually hits its target.
The film isn't bad for a lack of trying, and it credit is due for the fact that it manages to come together at all. But the more subtle moments - like the silent final shot of the film - tend to say far more than the scenes which are overwritten to do exactly that. Big Night is a reasonable time waster and its occasional moments of humour do enough to relieve the boredom that might otherwise set in, but for the most part it is as dull as its horribly unimaginative title forebodes.
If you want a real feel-good film that focuses on food but doesn't leave such a bland taste in your mouth, try Ang Lee's superb Eat Drink, Man Woman.
Why did they open a restaurant across from another, wildly successful Italian restaurant?