Big Night (1996)
Makes you wish you were Italian.
Big Night is about two brothers from Italy who move to 1950s New Jersey of all places, start up their own Italian restaurant despite having the odds stacked against them and despite being located across the street from the biggest Italian restaurant in town. Lo and behold, they wind up on the verge of bankruptcy and find themselves waging their livelihood on one night of carb-fueled goodness for their friends, competitors, and Louis Prima – the guest of honor who could change their fortune for good.
Not quite sure why I decided to watch this movie, never heard much about it beforehand aside from seeing it referenced around the blogosphere once in a blue moon and realizing that everyone in the Comments section hadn’t seen it either, but whatever the reason, I’m glad I did.
Now, I wouldn’t consider myself a foodie by any means since my skills in the kitchen apex with Aiden’s Perfect Tuna Melt and the ability to write a thesis paper on why spiral mac & cheese is the best box of mac & cheese out there, but I do pride myself on willingly eating anything and everything that’s put in front of me, I watch the Food Network like it’s about to get canceled yesterday, and I simply love to eat. Definitely helps to have the metabolism of an eight-year-old, but being the glutton and movie addict that I am, this was right up my alley.
Co-written by, co-directed by and starring Stanley Tucci, the dude nails it on both fronts. Here’s one of those guys who’s always been awesome, who’s always probably been one of the best in the biz, but for some reason he’s only now starting to gain that recognition on a larger front even though he’s been That Guy for ages. No idea what took the world so long, no idea why he had to play the creepiest pedo rapist of the past decade for folks to finally take notice, but here he is doing his thing as younger brother and restaurant manager, Secondo. Opposite him is Tony Shalhoub – another guy who never got due credit until Monk came along – as older brother and head chef, Primo. Apart, they’re great, but together, they’re out of sight.
Secondo is the level-headed voice of reason and the face of the operation, Primo is the unreasonable ego and the brains in the kitchen (great names, huh?), and thanks to a whole lot of sharp, backhanded dialogue, it’s endlessly entertaining and funny to watch them go at it at every turn. But when they’re not berating each other to a pulp, we never lose sight that these two are brothers, brothers who support each other, who recognize each other’s strengths when they’re not singling out their weakness, who want to succeed even if they have different ways of getting there, and that’s the most important thing. From the first time we meet them to the brilliant final scene that reminds us what this story’s all about, they’re a blast to watch and I never stopped being genuinely invested in what was going on with ’em whether it was food, women or whatever. Part of it is the script, but most of it is what Tucci and Shalhoub bring to the table.
But that’s just those two. We also get an effing outstanding and hilarious performance from Ian Holm – a guy who I’m pretty sure doesn’t have an iota of Italian blood running through his veins – as the friendly competition across the street, Isabella Rossellini is here in fine form as his daughter, Allison Janney is nice and fitting as Primo’s ambiguous love interest, and Minnie Driver actually ain’t half bad as Secondo’s main squeeze. Co-director Campbell Scott is also awesome as a used car salesman. Man, why isn’t Campbell Scott in more movies? He’s always awesome, he’s Hollywood royalty by birth and the only high points from his career that I’ve seen are The Spanish Prisoner and Roger Dodger, and I don’t think a whole lot of people have even seen those. Ugh, I’ll save the full rant for another time, but there are too many people in this movie who haven’t gotten a fair shake or got it way too late. Except for Marc Anthony, he can stick to music, but it’s neat to see him here as the busboy.
Then again, there’s the food. All that fucking food…
I go back and forth when it comes to Italian food because while there are days when all I want out of life is a coma-inducing platter of fettucini alfredo with a side of garlic bread that would make a vampire explode from looking at it, I feel like it’s hard to get a whole lot of variation on the menu. But as is true with any kind of food, when it’s made well, I could give a shit about variety. Folks, this is a freakin’ five-course orgy of cardiac parmesan and you will be green with envy at the lucky bastards who get to sit at the table. It’s not food snobs sitting around in silence, critiquing the feast in front of them and sniffing wine corks like it’s gonna age the shit an extra year, it’s a celebration, it’s a party, and there’s enough vino here to clear out the cellar. The whole thing is just this wonderful display of good people, good food, good music and good times that’ll make you want to get up and dance while you salivate like a Saint Bernard on the couch, cursing the fact that you wrote a thesis on spiral mac & cheese.
For two hours straight, it made me laugh, made me grin like an idiot, made me experience hunger pangs the likes of which no movie ever has. Big Night was a great little surprise with love to spare and some fantastic, complex, believable characters brought to life by some of the best and most under-appreciated actors out there. Doesn’t matter if you’re not Italian, doesn’t matter if you’d choose The Olive Garden over Little Italy, doesn’t matter if you don’t know who any of these actors are, this movie is fun and this movie carries weight.