Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Big Night Turns 20

Big Night (1996) is a fun and fabulous film for foodies. In fact, you’ll probably gain a pound or two just watching it. It’s all about a struggling Italian restaurant at the Jersey shore during the free-wheeling, optimistic days of the 1950s. At this humble trattoria, two immigrant brothers: Primo (Stanley Tucci) and Secondo (Tony Shalhoub), offer an array of exotic and authentic recipes from their native Italy. Actually, the fare is a little too authentic for this working class neighborhood, as the brothers find their customers would prefer familiar pizza and spaghetti. With their clientele staying away in droves, the brothers decide to risk it all by throwing a ruinously elaborate dinner party for bandleader Louis Prima, who is performing in the area. What transpires will be an unforgettable night with ancient scores settled, secret perfidies revealed, old romances rekindled and new loves blossoming, all while chowing down on an eye-popping, belt-busting bacchanal for the ages.

If Big Night doesn’t feel like the typical focus grouped, dramaturged to death Hollywood feature, that’s because it isn’t. Filmed on a low budget over 32 days, the movie was a labor of love; intended by writer and co-director Tucci as an homage to his childhood. Many of the dishes in the film were actually prepared by Tucci’s mother Joan, using old family recipes from Calabria. The film was also a boon to Tucci’s acting career. He had gotten pigeonholed as a cruel gangster drug dealer type, and Primo’s sincere, lovably neurotic character showed a new range in his persona. He and Shalhoub have an impressive comedic chemistry, born of years of experience. Shalhoub’s superb timing was hardly a surprise - he was a regular on the NBC sitcom Wings (1991-1997) - but here he proved himself capable of stepping out of the supporting actor shadows, and carrying a film on his back.

For all its astonishing culinary fireworks, Big Night is actually a film of small moments, played to perfection. The scene where the brothers discuss replacing the seafood risotto on their menu with a hot dog never fails to get a big laugh. Another memorable moment occurs when Shalhoub describes to his would-be girlfriend (Alison Janney) a lasagna so good he wanted to kill himself. Not only is the scene hilarious, it’s a classic example of the wide gulf between Latin and Anglo-Saxon temperaments. But it’s the film’s final three minutes that - like a slice of Secondo’s ultra rich timpano - will stay with you a long time. Filmed in one take, Tucci makes fried eggs for the exhausted, and mightily hung-over, restaurant staff. Though nary a word is spoken, we know that somehow, despite their depleted savings, despite their dwindling prospects, despite their family squabbles, the brothers will find a way to venture on; their bonds of love unbreakable.


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