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Big Night

Posted by martinteller on July 11, 2014

Secondo (Stanley Tucci) runs the restaurant “Paradise”, with his older brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub) as the chef.  Despite Primo’s masterful cooking, patrons have not flocked to their establishment, unaccustomed to authentic Italian cuisine.  Instead, they head across the street to a restaurant run by Pascal (Ian Holm), who offers giant portions of spaghetti & meatballs.  With the bank threatening to shut him down, Secondo comes to Pascal for help.  Pascal promises a visit from the famous musician Louis Prima, whose word of mouth will surely bring big business to Paradise.  With the help of Secondo’s girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver), the florist that Primo has a crush on (Allison Janney), and the waiter Cristiano (Marc Anthony), the brothers prepare for a big night of feast and celebration… and waiting for Louis.

I have heard about this movie for a while, but it was my fiancée Carrie who finally gave me the big push.  Carrie has often selected films that delighted me, including some that far surpassed my preconceptions, like last month’s viewing of Dirty Dancing.  She scored even bigger this time, getting me to watch a film she loved, a film that will undoubtedly be one of my top “discoveries” of the year.  What you will probably hear most about this film is how delectable it is as a “food movie”, earning a spot alongside Eat Drink Man Woman, Tampopo or Babette’s Feast (the latter was less appetizing to me, but undoubtedly uses food beautifully to express itself).  The dishes themselves are mouth-watering, the centerpiece being a painstakingly prepared behemoth called a “timpano”… a giant drum-shaped pie filled with ziti, sauce, meatballs and eggs.  The actors do a wonderfully warm and comic job of selling the ecstasy of consuming this dish and the other delights that emerge from Primo’s kitchen.

The feast is the centerpiece of the film, and is filled with joy and fun and emotion.  It’s the kind of event you yearn to be part of, like Christmas with the Ekdahls in Fanny & Alexander.  But what makes the party so effective is the work put into the characters beforehand.  Tucci is excellent in the lead, crafting a character who struggles to succeed on his own terms while trying to please a brother who clings admirably — but stubbornly — to his ideals.  Secondo is not all hero, however, and has some significant character flaws.  He carries an “old world” Madonna/whore complex, putting Phyllis on a pristine pedestal while making time with Pascal’s wife (Isabella Rossellini) on the side.  And Shalhoub… Shalhoub steals every scene, a lovable comic actor who hits his notes just right.  The supporting cast is really enjoyable too, including Driver and Janney and Anthony, and Campbell Scott (who co-directed the film with Tucci) as a pushy Cadillac salesman and Pasquale Cajano as Primo’s barber confidante.  Holm’s Italian accent doesn’t quite work, but he has one or two golden moments.

It isn’t merely a “food movie” (the best food movies are always more than that) but an engaging character drama.  It draws inspiration from Martin Scorsese (the lengthy tracking shot through the restaurant) and Fellini (the festive atmosphere of the feast, the ensemble of memorable characters) but also tells an Italian-American story of its very own.  And without giving anything away, the final scene is a wonder.  An unbroken shot that lasts several minutes with very little dialogue, but says something beautiful about what’s truly important in life.  This is a very engaging, often hilarious film that sidesteps cliché and puts something special on your plate.  Rating: Great (90)


4 Responses to “Big Night”

  1. mountanto said

    This has been on my list for a while. And I had no idea it had THAT good of a cast. This is definitely high priority now.

  2. JC said

    Hopefully this gets a re-release soon – it’s one I’ve wanted to see for a while, similar to Mountanto. Great review as always!

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