If you are dieting, you might do well to avoid Big Night, a rhapsodic ode in the delicious tradition of Babette's Feast and Eat Drink Man Woman. Each time the main characters emerge from the kitchen of their struggling restaurant, carrying another mouth-watering delight to a table of ecstatic diners, you can almost smell the roasted pig, the tricolor risotto -- and the piece de resistance, the timpano, an elaborate, kettle-shaped concoction filled with layers of pasta, meats, cheese and eggs. By the time the dinner guests are swooning over their coffee, you likely will be wondering whether your favorite eatery will still be open after the closing credits roll. If, that is, you can wait that long.
This marathon of exquisite cuisine is the centerpiece of Big Night, a pleasingly bittersweet comedy with the purposeful structure of a classic short story. Co-directed by actors Stanley Tucci (who co-wrote the screenplay with his cousin Joseph Tropiano) and Campbell Scott, it's a sharply observed and surprisingly affecting tale of two Italian immigrant brothers who see themselves as artists in a world where artistry is viewed as a low-yield commodity. They are proud -- and, yes, stubborn -- but there is nothing foolish or hubristic about them. That their art is served on plates and not hung on walls doesn't make it any less precious.
Set in a New Jersey shore town in the late 1950s, Big Night is the story of Primo Pilaggi (Tony Shalhoub) and his younger brother, Secondo (Tucci), transplanted Italians who operate a restaurant they have named, optimistically, the Paradise.
Secondo is the debonair host, greeting customers with courtly politeness and infinite patience. When one of their few paying customers is boorish enough to demand a side order of spaghetti with his risotto, Secondo does his considerable best not to laugh out loud. He simply nods and retreats to the kitchen, where Primo is absolute master of all he surveys. Primo is outraged -- how dare anyone disrespect his risotto! -- but Secondo is insistent. The customer may not always be right, he allows, but his whims must be satisfied.
So Primo prepares the spaghetti, and Secondo delivers it, with suitable flourish, to the table. But it doesn't end there: the customer wants to know why there isn't anything on the spaghetti. Without missing a beat, Secondo explain, "Sometimes, spaghetti just wants to be alone."
Early in Big Night, it's clear that Primo and Secondo have been spending a lot of time alone in the Paradise, waiting for customers who never materialize. Meanwhile, down the street, another immigrant, the boisterous Pascal (Ian Holm), is doing turn-away business with a more Americanized version of an Italian restaurant, the sort of place with meatballs and flambe dishes on the menu, candles in Chianti bottles on the tables and a lounge singer performing "O Sole Mio."
"That man should be in prison for the food he serves!" Primo indignantly sniffs. But Pascal's place attracts more people in a single evening than the Paradise draws in a month or two. And Secondo -- who's Americanizing himself much quicker than Primo -- is starting to suspect that lowering standards may be the key to increasing business.
As the brothers sink deeper into debt, and their bank begins to make noises about overdue loans, Secondo tentatively suggests that Primo drop a few labor-intensive items from the menu. Such as, for instance, Primo's beloved risotto. Primo counters by suggesting that they start serving hot dogs instead. End of discussion.
Pascal may be crass, but he's appreciative of the Pilaggis and their culinary artistry. Indeed, he is so appreciative, he offers to hire the brothers and put them to work in his own restaurant. That isn't going to happen, of course -- truth to tell, Primo would rather sell hot dogs. But Secondo is willing to listen to Pascal's advice, especially when the rival restaurateur makes a novel suggestion: if the brothers get Louis Prima and his band to dine at the Paradise, the resulting publicity will attract hundreds of customers. And, hey, wouldn't you know it: Pascal just happens to know Prima, and even has the bandleader's phone number. He will call Prima and direct him to the Paradise. After that, it's up to the brothers to serve the meal of a lifetime. Which, naturally, they do.
Most of the second half of Big Night is devoted to the preparation and enjoyment of the massive feast that the Pilaggis hope will put their restaurant on the map. When he isn't helping in the kitchen or fussing over tablecloths and table settings, Secondo juggles relationships with two very different women: Phyllis (Minnie Driver), a respectable young teller who works in the bank where Secondo is a frequent visitor; and Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), an earthy beauty who just happens to be Pascal's mistress and restaurant hostess. (Secondo truly loves Phyllis, but Gabriella knows where he can get a great deal on discount liquor.) Primo nurses a secret crush on Ann (Allison Janney), the neighborhood florist, but he is too shy to reveal his feelings. Secondo is the one who takes it upon himself to invite her to the upcoming "big night" at the Paradise.
Does Louis Prima show up? It wouldn't be fair to say, and it ultimately doesn't matter. Big Night is more concerned with the tough-love relationship between Primo and Secondo, two strong-willed men who argue with all the intensity you would expect of brothers who so passionately love each other and the food they create. Tucci and Shalhoub portray these characters so vividly, and are so perfectly balanced in their scenes together, that the other cast members are in danger of seeming like mere satellites in their orbit. Even so, the supporting players -- including co-director Scott as a smooth-talking Cadillac salesman -- are everything they should be. And at least two, Holm and Rossellini, are good enough to snatch a few scenes here and there.
Big Night ends with a wordless sequence that's deeply moving, quietly audacious and profoundly eloquent. It sums up everything the movie has to say about what really matters. Think of it as the final course of a wonderfully satisfying banquet.
-- Joe Leydon
Directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott. With Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.