In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1986 and seven from 1996 (the extra in December’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Fondly remembered first and foremost as a food film fit for gourmands, 1996’s Big Night places less emphasis on sumptuously photographed meal prep than you might expect (or remember).
Sure, Googling “timpano,” the film’s signature dish, reveals a prominent, film-inspired New York Times recipe. But Big Night is a story about siblings set in a restaurant rather than a cousin to contemporary cuisine cinema like Burnt and Chef — modestly ambitious comfort dishes with purposeful food porn.
Big Night will still send your salivary glands spiraling into Tex Avery territory; the hint that even one majestically browned, impeccably rounded timpano may go uneaten is the most potent tragedy of Big Night. But like timpano, Big Night is layered with the delicacy, care and closely guarded alchemy of a family recipe — evolving beyond the idea of food as emotional or communicative currency into something that tastes more bittersweet.
Yes, it’s about a meal so magnificent that some characters — in a moment purposefully lit, staged and shot to resemble a post-coital afterglow — lament their lifetime lost to the years before they got to eat it. But it’s also a tale about the passions and perils of immigrants pursuing American ideals of success. It laughs at, and lingers over, pop-myth expectations of romance that often curdle in the real world. It’s about brothers who know each other’s capacity for worry and who dare not stray outside of it … until they absolutely must and, in doing so, risk severing their relationship altogether.
Today, adult moviegoers recognize Stanley Tucci’s presence as a standard-bearer for quality in films like Spotlight. Teenagers know him as cap-toothed, cerulean-haired Caesar Flickerman from The Hunger Games. Even kids recognize him as that bald, shouting guy from the Transformers franchise or the kindly Dr. Erskine from Captain America: The First Avenger. Before his present-day ubiquity in projects of popularity or prestige, Tucci was a bit-part guy desperate to define himself outside of anonymous menacing enforcers, wisecracking sidekicks or Pauly Shore foils.
So Tucci partnered with Joseph Tropiano, his cousin, to write Big Night and play Secondo, an Italian immigrant and would-be restaurateur on the Jersey Shore in the 1950s — who toils as maître d’ in the shadow of his brilliant-chef brother, Primo (Tony Shalhoub), their numerical names dictating hierarchy from birth.
Tucci also teamed up with longtime friend and fellow actor Campbell Scott to co-direct Big Night. Best known then for leading-man roles opposite Julia Roberts (Dying Young) and Bridget Fonda (Singles), Scott had since receded into more independent fare. He and Tucci had been pals since high school, and Scott’s mother, Colleen Dewhurst, helped Tucci earn his Equity card by getting him cast beside Scott in a 1982 Broadway play in which she was the star. (Tucci and Scott weren’t the only actors helping out behind the scenes; Oliver Platt, who by then was playing one of Dumas’ Musketeers for Disney, also served as an associate producer, but does not appear.)
Scooped up by the Samuel Goldwyn Company and accompanied by critical acclaim, Big Night became a Sundance darling well before that turned into a pejorative term for predictable quirk. It tripled its $4 million budget. Oscar glory evaded Big Night, though, in a year focused on traditional melodrama (The English Patient), the Coen Brothers’ coronation (Fargo) and more visible crowd-pleasers about creatives in crisis (Jerry Maguire).
But Big Night’s bona fides as a melancholy day-in-the-life story are set in the first shot, which opens on the serene tides of the Atlantic before following a busboy on break named Cristiano (singer Marc Anthony) back into the kitchen of the Paradise restaurant. No pumped-up bustle or hustle; Scott and Tucci observe the actors’ convincing cook work, the spatial dynamics of Primo and Secondo’s brotherly relationship, their conversational styles and, most of all, where each man draws a line between commercial and creative the culinary canvas. (One underplayed running joke that later plays into a poignant moment: Cristiano always seems to know the right time to leave the room and let the brothers’ boiling conflict reduce into a simmer.)
Primo has the selective hearing, and temperament, of any frustrated artist — refusing to entertain any suggestion of substituting his elaborate menu for something simpler. His finicky fixation on control also vexes him when it comes to the fairer sex. A florist down the street (Allison Janney) would gladly accompany Primo on a date … if he weren’t busy burrowing in her refrigerator to pick centerpiece flowers himself.
By necessity, Secondo is not really an exuberant, trusted maître d’. He’s a salesman of sycophantic distraction from Primo, as we see in the dining room. On a Friday night, there are but three customers — the artist with whom Primo regularly trades meals for paintings out of misguided wunderkind kinship and a couple that just wants to see the scallops in the seafood risotto for which they waited so long.
Secondo shields the sight of them slathering Primo’s dishes with cheese (a literal cover for their creativity) and meekly tries to head off a request for spaghetti with meatballs. (“Sometimes spaghetti likes to be alone,” he futilely demurs.) Primo eventually pulls a stockpot to serve up spaghetti … with the enthusiasm of a thoroughbred racer asked to race a mule.
This is business as usual at the Paradise, and it’s bad. When a loan officer describes Secondo’s payments as “inconsistent,” that’s all the kindness he will afford. Secondo believes he has irresistible force, but foreclosure is a truly immovable object. He’s great at distracting customers and Primo (whose only concern for money is whether it pays for produce that doesn’t look “small and dead, like a wig”). Institutions drive a far harder bargain.
Secondo also chooses the worst personal moments in which to swap charm for exasperation and a listening ear — namely pressing pause during a backseat encounter with long-suffering girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver).
She’s a teller at the bank — where we suspect Secondo wheedled and cajoled her until upper management had to intervene — and eager to elevate their courtship to the next level. Secondo’s equivocations hint at the emotional impotency and insecurity that goes in hand with financial insolvency; Tucci and Tropiano’s screenplay shows how each brother, in his own way, suffers a sort of performance anxiety.
One gets the sense the Paradise’s only customers are desperate, hungry souls who can’t bear a long wait at Pascal’s Italian Grotto — a cavernous eatery around the corner as garishly stereotyped as it is draped in neon. Scott and Tucci treat us to a Goodfellas-like swoop through its chintzy, red-lit interior before Secondo pleads with its namesake owner for patronage.
Pascal might not represent Ian Holm’s best performance, but it’s easily the veteran character actor’s most surprising — a loud, authoritative 180 from his usual British fussbudgets or soulless company men. “Hey, hey, hey! Theees-a fuckin’ guy!” he barks at Secondo’s hangdog handout requests. “Bite your teeth into the ass of life and drag it to you! There is no such thing as too much, only not enough!”
A generalissimo of a guy who speaks solely to hear his own voice, Pascal can’t bail out the Paradise. But he’ll happily pilfer its talents for a partnership. Forestalling Primo’s prickly rebuttal to that proposal, Secondo begs off. Pascal’s Plan B: He will give the Paradise a fighting chance by sending his longtime pal, musician Louis Prima, and his backing band there for a meal on an off-night. The idea is that the press and prestige of Prima’s visit will confer “it status” on the Paradise and help reverse its misfortune.
Rather than indulging in a comedy of errors leading up to the dinner, Big Night cuts directly to the morning of — starting with the delivery of produce and proteins necessary for Primo to plan the meal. Phyllis has turned up to help however she can. Secondo is picking up a shipment of booze … eventually.
We find that he’s been catting around on the side with Pascal’s lady, Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini). She’s taking advantage of his youthful prowess. He’s taking advantage of her supplier connections. It’s an emotional distance on which they mutually agree … until now, when Gabriella starts to feel cheapened by both Pascal and Secondo.
Infidelity is not the only devil that takes charge of Secondo’s hands when left idle. While waiting for the booze to arrive, Secondo ambles over to a Cadillac dealership where a salesman named Bob (Scott) immediately accosts him — a spider welcoming Secondo into his leather-interior parlor.
Bob is a tertiary character, but like others of his ilk in Big Night, we learn exactly what we need to know about him: That the cast on his hand is likely the result of the one person on whom his spiel holds no sway. Secondo trades Bob parking his latest shiny new model in front of the Paradise for the promise of a free meal at the Prima party later on. He’s one of many from Primo and Secondo’s small sphere who show up to seed the shindig, along with a skeptical reporter and, eventually, Pascal and Gabriella.
In a way, the meal represents a microcosm of American-dream aspects elevated by fiction — everymen rubbing shoulders with celebrities like plebes with gods, the one triumph that can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, proving your worth in the face of a rival, even the press man breaking a big society-page story on Prima deigning to dine at a dinky restaurant.
Not for nothing do the characters dress like movie-star versions of themselves for the meal, beyond Phyllis’s Veronica Lake-style clean-up. So, too, does the dining room transform from an empty echo chamber of frustration into a warm, welcoming haven of laughter and mirth … even as hours pass without Prima.
Without ever devolving into broad farce, Big Night’s plethora of plot threads play out. Rossellini and Driver nail a scene when Gabriella and Phyllis (who don’t yet know they’re sharing the same man’s lips) express a passion for the unattainable ideal of a cowboy as a partner. What they really seek is a silent man who won’t run roughshod over romance or a rumble in the sheets with his rambling insecurities and fears; certainly, neither Secondo nor Pascal can ever live up to those standards.
And we learn Primo has planned his own parachute escape behind Secondo’s back should the dinner go south — one in which he foolishly assumes Secondo will quickly join him. It infuses a certain sadness into the otherwise spiriting sight of Primo finally loosening up to enjoy himself, if only for a fleeting moment. Primo cares not if Prima shows up … but has no idea how deeply America has a hold on Secondo’s head, heart and wallet.
Each brother’s blind spot bubbles up in a beach confrontation that’s simultaneously a low-tide moment and one of cleansing clarity. The altercation is silly and sad, their refusal to strike each other serving as subtle slapstick and a somber reminder of how wildly they have misplaced this rage. Their anger is not with each other, but with ideals and notions they can never topple. All they have are impassioned howls to assert their arguments. When Primo, in a fit of desperation, lets loose his cry against compromise, Secondo’s instinct is to comfort but he also wants to further indulge his anger. In careers filled with standout moments, this brotherly give-and-take here ranks among Shalhoub’s and Tucci’s best.
The terms of Primo and Secondo’s reconciliation play out where Big Night begins — in their kitchen, albeit solely through body language and via a meal meant for sustenance and sympathy rather than sale. In this moment, Primo and Secondo finalize nothing … and everything. Their brotherly grace and stubborn reluctance come out in equal measure, resolving the only rift that truly matters.
What a lovely, fitting coda to a film that understands the push and pull, the pains and pleasures, the insistent call of “the American dream” without speechifying or simplifying. Big Night is a good food movie, but a great one about community and culture, ambition and heartache, and foolishness and forgiveness.