Thursday, May 30, 2013

Big Night (1996)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from netflix instant.

Remember how Stanley Tucci's The Impostors is one of the funniest movies ever made? Well, it is. So naturally I wanted to check out his debut film Big Night. This tale of Italian immigrants in 1950s New Jersey centers on brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), the former a genius chef and the latter a business-minded restauranteur. Their floundering restaurant needs to temper its menu offerings for customers uneducated in traditional Italian food, but the cantankerous Primo is unwilling to sacrifice his culinary art. When a seedy Italian club owner (Ian Holm) promises to invite famous jazz singer Louis Prima to their restaurant, the brothers prepare for one big night that they hope will change everything, while dealing with romantic, familial, and financial drama along the way.

With a stellar cast that includes Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, Campbell Scott (who also co-directed), Allison Janney, and Marc Anthony (in his first film appearance), Big Night is a well-acted, understated drama that sags a bit because of its script. I loved the examination of the Italian immigrant experience on the Jersey coast and the ins and outs of a struggling family restaurant, but the complications of infidelity thrown into the mix was unnecessary. I would have been interested to see the business/family stuff made the complete focus, instead of the weird romantic subplot that has the protagonist cheating on his awesome girlfriend for absolutely no reason. Like, for once can the likable hero in a drama not be a womanizer? Please? It's just not a part of the story that interested me.

Otherwise Big Night is a nice time, a passionate foodie movie with a no-frills production and moments of unexpected silly humor. I loved Tucci and Shalhoub in the main roles, and enjoyed everyone's Italian accents (though Holm's was hilariously exaggerated). The film is strongest as a quiet, somewhat humorous study of these characters and their uncertain situation, without leaning on overblown dramatic tension or some over the top climax. Their daily interactions, their friendships and rivalries, their reverent, almost fanatical love of food: these are the elements that work best. But the melodramatic romantic subplot took away from that for me, and I just couldn't become fully absorbed in the movie.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Of course one food movie usually just puts me in the mood for another food movie, for this I might recommend I Am Love since it also deals with Italian cuisine. Or since half the cast shows up again in The Impostors, and The Impostors is one of the best movies, you could just watch that. Yes.

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