Saturday, July 30, 2016

Stubs - Big Night

Big Night (1996) Starring: Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci. Screenplay by Joseph Tropiano and Stanley Tucci. Produced by David Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Filley Runtime 107 minutes. US. Color. Drama

Independent movies, like their studio counterparts, can be very hit and miss. Oftentimes, though, the goal is to make a good movie and not necessarily a lot of money. [My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) is an exception to the rule. Made on a budget of $5 million, that Canadian-American romantic comedy would go on to earn nearly $370 million at the box office.] While no one would turn down a wheelbarrow full of cash, it really is the quality of the work that will live on long after the money is spent. That’s why we celebrate classic Hollywood cinema, not because of the box office the film might have earned, but because when the work is good, we want to see it over and over again.

Such is the case with Big Night, a film co-written and co-directed by Stanley Tucci. Made on what had to be a, pardon the pun, spaghetti thin budget of $4.1 million, Big Night really seems to capture the mood of the time. Set on the New Jersey Shore in the 1950s, Big Night tells the story of two recent Italian immigrant brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and his younger brother, Secondo (Tucci). Together, they run a small Italian restaurant, Paradise. Primo is the chef and closely follows traditional cooking he learned back in Abruzzo. Primo openly dislikes American ideas of what makes an Italian dinner. We see him get enraged when a female customer wants a side dish of spaghetti and meatballs to go along with her order of seafood risotto. He can’t understand why she would want a starch to go with a starch. He wonders if he should make her mashed potatoes as well.

Secondo manages Paradise and he is concerned about the restaurant’s future. Unlike his brother, whose whole life seems to revolve around food, Secondo is interested in the possibilities and promise of their new home, America.

Primo is not sold on staying, contemplating an offer from their uncle to return to Rome and work in his restaurant. Secondo, no matter what, has no intentions of ever going back.

Despite the quality of the food, Paradise is failing. Their lone employee is a busboy named Cristiano (Marc Anthony). The restaurant is in direct competition with Pascal’s (Ian Holm) self-named much more successful one which is just across the street. There they serve Americanized Italian cuisine and have a full house every night because of it.

Secondo (Stanley Tucci) has trouble committing to his girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver).

Because he is struggling to keep his business going, the bank refuses to give the brothers more time to pay back their business loan, Secondo has trouble committing to his girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver). Further, she wants to remain chaste until they tie the knot. To that end, Secondo is sleeping with Pascal’s younger wife, Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini).

Rival Pascal (Ian Holm) offers to help Secondo and Primo (Tony Shalhoub), but he doesn't.

Secondo goes to Pascal looking for a loan, but while Pascal says he likes the brothers and wants them to come work with him, he can’t come up with the money they need. But instead of money, Pascal offers to persuade popular Italian-American singer Louis Prima to dine at Paradise when he is in town. The assumption is having a big name dine there will help revitalize the boy’s business. Primo hasn’t heard of Louis Prima, but Secondo knows what a potential publicity event this would be. He finally confesses to Primo the financial precipice the restaurant is teetering on and Primo steps up preparing a timpano for the occasion. (If you haven’t seen the film, a timpano is a complicated baked pasta dish, which you will definitely want after the movie.)

Secondo and Cristiano (Mark Anthony) admire Primo's Timpano.

The brothers spend nearly all of their life savings on the big night and Secondo invites anyone and everyone, including the produce deliveryman, Bob (Campbell Scott), a car dealer who tempted Secondo with a Cadillac and a newspaper reporter, not to mention Pascal, Gabriella, Phyllis and Ann (Allison Janney), a widow who runs the florist, on whom the shy Primo has an unexpressed crush.

Primo has a crush on Ann (Allison Janney), who also gets invited to the Big Night.

As they wait for Prima to arrive, the guests indulge in Primo’s exquisitely made dishes and a celebration starts. Eventually, it becomes apparent that Prima is not coming. Phyllis catches Secondo and Gabriella kissing and runs off to the beach. At Gabriella's insistence, Pascal finally admits that he never called Louis Prima, thus ending the party.

All the party is missing is the guest of honor Louis Prima.

Secondo follows Phyllis to the beach where they have a final quarrel. Primo and Secondo also argue, hashing out their differences. Pascal admits to Secondo that he had set up the brothers for failure; but not as revenge for Secondo's affair with Gabriella. He wanted to force the brothers to either return to Italy or come work for him. Secondo tells Pascal that the brothers will never work for him.

As dawn breaks, the brothers return to Paradise, where Secondo silently cooks an omelet. When done, he divides it among three plates, one for Cristiano, one for himself and one for Primo. The two brothers eat without speaking and lay their arms across one another's shoulders in a sign of family solidarity.
At the end of the Big Night, Secondo and Primo share breakfast and their future.

While their future looks bleak, it is clear that the two brothers will face it together. A lot is left unsettled, but that’s partly the point of the movie. We’re peeking into a day in the life of two brothers, both chasing unattainable dreams. Primo wants to be the best cook and change American expectations for Italian cuisine, while Secondo wants to live the good life of the American dream: beautiful women and luxury cars.

In many ways, this is a small film with small ambitions, just like Primo and Secondo. But unlike the Paradise, the film succeeds at all levels. The story stays true to itself. These are all flawed people in some ways. Secondo can’t commit to Phyllis, but has no qualms about sleeping with the wife of another man whom he turns to for help. Primo doesn’t have the right temperament to be a successful chef, he is unwilling to adapt to attract more clientele. And Pascal is perhaps the most flawed, ruining the livelihood of two men he pretends to like. He has already won the competition between the restaurants, but he is not happy until he has vanquished his rivals.

A labor of love for Scott and Tucci, who had been friends since high school, the film was a breakthrough of sorts for both actors. The film captures the right mood and look of the era in which it takes place. Big Night makes you long for homemade Italian food and for more films like this.

Tucci was still on TV in his role as Richard Cross on Murder One (1995-96) when this film opened theatrically. After this film, it is sad that Tucci has not done more directing. This was the first of only four films he helmed, including The Impostors (1998), Joe Gould’s Secret (2000) and Blind Date (2007), none of which has resonated the way Big Night has. Instead, he has concentrated on acting, appearing in mostly supporting roles in films like Deconstructing Harry (1997), Road to Perdition (2002), Maid in Manhattan (2002), The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Julie & Julia (2009). A very versatile actor, it is sad in a way that modern audiences know him best as Caesar Flickerman, the over-the-top TV host in The Hunger Games (2012), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014) and Part 2 (2015).

Tucci and Scott co-directed Big Night.

Campbell Scott, the son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst has not been quite as busy as Tucci. While they both earned their equity cards by appearing in a Broadway play Dewhurst was co-starring in, their careers have taken divergent paths. Scott’s breakthrough performance came opposite Julia Roberts in Dying Young (1991). He had also appeared in Singles (1992) and as Peter Benchley in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). Since Big Night, he has worked in both TV and film, most recently narrating the History Channel series The Men Who Built America (2012). He has also appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and its sequel The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). His role in Big Night is rather small, but his contribution to the overall film was in a more important role as co-director.

One other actor to comment on from this film is Tony Shalhoub. His first major role was in the TV series Wings (1991-97) in which he played mechanic Antonio Scarpacci. He would later find success as Monk in a series by the same name which ran on the USA network from 2002-2009. A very versatile actor, Shalhoub has appeared in such films as Barton Fink (1991), Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), IQ (1994), Men in Black (1997), Galaxy Quest (1999), Spy Kids (2001), Men in Black II (2002) and Cars (2006). His performance as Primo is one of the highlights of Big Night.

I could go on and on, but everyone deserves some mention for their acting prowess and the gravitas they bring to their roles in this film.

Instead, I would rather recommend Big Night to anyone who wants to see a good movie and who loves Italian food. Because afterward, you’ll want to see the movie again while eating a slice of timpano.

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