Sunday, December 14, 2008

Big Night = Life

Big Night's subject is, essentially, life. Its plot is that of two Italian brothers in 1950's New York whose restaurant is on the verge of bankruptcy. Through a fellow restauranteur, they set up for jazz superstar Louis Prima to come to the restaurant and eat, which will get them out of debt because people will want to flock to the place Louis Prima eats. So they have to prepare an elaborate meal, invite many guests, and make sure everything is just right for their big night. That's the extent of the "plot", but it's not like nothing happens during the movie's 107 minutes. Like life, it has a lot going on. It's really about family, love, and most of all, the joy of food.

No movie has ever been as in love with food as much as this movie is. Tony Shaloub plays Primo, the oldest brother and head chef. Stanley Tucci is Secondo, the younger brother, and the one who deals with the money issues. "Seco" helps in the kitchen and is very knowledgable about food, but Primo is the one in charge of the menu. My favorite scene in the movie is one of the first, where a woman in the restaurant orders the risotto, but wants a side of spaghetti and meatballs with it. Seco has to explain to her that spaghetti and meatballs doesn't exist in real Italian food. There's spaghetti, and there's meatballs, but there's no spaghetti and meatballs. On top of that Seco has to explain that her risotto is rice, a starch, and spaghetti is pasta, a starch, and you really shouldn't serve two starches together. The woman and her husband reiterate that they'd like spaghetti and meatballs, and since they're the only paying customers in the place, Seco goes into the kitchen to tell Primo to make some spaghetti (naturally, Primo's response is "But they're both starches!"). A competing Italian restaurant in town is packed night after night, but when Seco goes to check them out he's disgusted as he can see that nearly every table has a huge plate of spaghetti and meatballs on it. Primo assures him that "If we give people time, they will learn" about real Italian food, but Seco reminds his brother that "We're a restaurant, not a fucking school".

Tucci wrote the script with his cousin Joseph Tropiano, and directed it with his high school friend Campbell Scott (son of Oscar winner George C. Scott). They assembled a terrific supporting cast with Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini, Allison Janney, Marc Anthony, and a pre-Good Will Hunting Minnie Driver all delivering good performances. Holm is a bit grating as the owner of the busy restaurant, but he's supposed to be. Tucci is clearly uncomfortable and annoyed by Holm, and since we're on his side, so are we. Ultimately though, it's Tucci and Shaloub that steal the show. You really feel the history and chemistry that these two brothers have with one another. They fight, they laugh, they love each other, and again, they cook. Big Night has one of the best final scenes in any movie I've ever watched. A silent 5 1/2 minute shot of Tucci making eggs, while they recover from the big night. It doesn't tie up any loose ends in the plot, but it shows the connecting bond that these guys share through food. Food heals and embraces them, just as this movie embraces us.

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