Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Unsung!: Big Night

Big Night is one of the best films I have ever seen, a film that I hold so close to my heart that for years I could not bring myself to see it again for fear that my first screening’s spell would be broken. Is it because I am Italian? Is it because I love food? Is it because I am very different from my brother? Probably all three.

Big Night opens with an argument between brothers. Secondo, who runs the restaurant the two own, says that a customer would like a side dish of pasta with her risotto. Primo, the head chef, refuses the request, insisting that risotto, being a starch, should never be served with another starch. Secondo insists; he feels that, although it may not be to their tastes, they should always give customers what they want. Primo calls the customer a “philistine” and a “criminal,” and refuses to prepare the side dish of pasta.

And so one of the film’s main themes, “art versus commerce,” begins.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: The Paradise restaurant is failing. Owners Primo and Secondo (Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci) are constantly arguing; Primo is such a brilliant chef that he has a problem taking orders from customers. Across town another restaurant, Pascal’s, is a great success, though it serves mediocre food. Though Pascal (Ian Holm) tries constantly to convince the brothers to close their restaurant and come work for him, out of friendship he suggests a way to save The Paradise. Through his connections, he will invite singing sensation Louis Prima to dine at the brothers’ restaurant, and the attendant publicity will bring in lots of new business. The brothers sink their remaining savings into making their “big night” a success. Things do not go exactly as planned.

The film features many actors I love (Tucci, Shalhoub, Holm, Campbell Scott, and Isabella Rossellini, to name a few) and what I consider the only decent performance in Minnie Driver’s career. The real treat here is seeing Tucci and Shalhoub (who are usually relegated to memorable supporting performances) finally getting their chance to sink their teeth into leading roles that are worthy of them. The two performances convey such subtle emotional information about the brothers that the film is a master’s class in acting.

Stanley Tucci has said that he adapted the script for himself because he was tired of waiting for good parts to come along. His co-writer was Campbell Scott, who also appears in the film as a slyly obnoxious car salesman. Big Night comes from the novel by Joseph Tropiano; the book actually contains the recipes for some of Primo’s best dishes. As one might expect in a screenplay written by two actors, the dialogue is witty and well observed. Some favorite lines:

“Give the people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”

"A guy works all day, he don't want to look at his plate and ask, ‘What the fuck is this?’ He wants to look at his plate, see a steak, and say ‘I like steak!’"

Primo: “Give people time, they will learn.”
Secondo: “This is a restaurant! This is not a fucking school!”

“Do you know what happens in THAT restaurant every night? RAPE! RAPE! The rape of cuisine.”

“Sometimes the spaghetti wants to be alone.”

And especially: “Bite your teeth into the ass of life.”

Much of the second half of the film involves the preparation of an exacting Italian delicacy known as a timballo. According to the Wikipedias (which, if I understand correctly, is a series of wicker tubes), “the dish is prepared in a dome or springform pan and eggs or cheese are used as a binder. Rice is commonly used as an ingredient in the Emilia-Romagna region, where the dish is referred to as a ‘bomba’ and baked with a filling of pigeon or other game bird, peas, local cheese and a base of dried pasta. Crêpes are used as a base in Abruzzo, and other regions use ravioli or gnocchi. In Sicily, it's typically made with pasta and eggplant.” (the dish in Big Night is prepared with fish.)

Once you see the film, it will have you scurrying to the Internet to find the closest Italian restaurant that actually makes it. I remember when Big Night was still playing in theaters, a few enterprising Italian restaurants in the area arranged a cooperative crossover where patrons could attend the film and then immediately enjoy timballo in the restaurant. It takes many hours to prepare, and when it is done, it looks like this:
The final scene is quiet and touching. It should be used in every film school class in the country as a fine example of “Show, Don’t Tell.” It is the most emotionally affecting breakfast you will ever see.  The film has a lot to say about food, family, and the ways in which we persevere in spite of hardships. Make it a point to see it in the coming year, and a very Happy New Year to all of our readers and listeners!

Big Night is currently out of print on DVD (a new copy will run you about $120 and I do not think it comes with a timballo) but is available on Amazon Instant Video.


  1. My New Year's Resolution is to watch a new-to-me movie every day of the year (or, if I miss a day, double or triple-up on subsequent days). I'm starting today, and I'm making "Big Night" on Amazon.com (in HD no less) my first new-to-me movie of 2013. :-)

    1. Happy New Year, J.M. I hope you enjoy Big Night as much as I do.

    2. Thanks, JB. Love your new picture BTW, hope it was an alternate version of the original 'singing' picture and that you didn't have to go back to the shower for a 'reshoot' (all that soap!). :-P

      Finished "Big Night" this afternoon (along with several new-to-me episodes of a new favorite TV show, ITV's "Primeval") and I can't say I love it as much as you do but it's a pretty good actor's movie. I really liked the chemistry between Tony Shalhoub and Allison Janney (reminded me of my father and his wife, complete opposites that somehow found love), which makes me question whether Primo would really choose to go back to Italy and leave Ann behind (unless Primo talks Ann into going with him, which is doubtful). Love seeing Liev Schreiber in the background of several shots w/o saying a word, the shot of the restaurant patrons exhausted from eating so well and the whole 'rain outside/inside' scene. And people should definitely not see this with an empty stomach because watching "Big Night" will make anyone want to rush to the nearest Italian restaurant and manga.

      I have some issues with the movie though. Many characters (particularly Marc Anthony) are underdeveloped, one-dimensional and/or just there; I couldn't believe the Cadillac salesguy (who'll probably end up selling one to Pascal) got better character development than Cristiano. The camera angles are really basic and almost pedestrian, like a filmed stage play for PBS (not bad-looking, just uninspired). I hate it when stereotypical music plays over and over, and "Big Night" is no more or less guilty of this most common of cinematic sins. Minnie Driver and Isabella Rossellini barely nick characters that should have been way more interesting (but kudos to Tucci for having a rare movie in which all leading ladies are taller than the male leads). The ending is well made but it really left me depressed, as did pretty much the movie's last 20 or so minutes (especially since I could see 'the twist' from the start).

      "Big Night" works in that you end up caring so much about Primo, Secondo, Phyllis, Ann and even Pascal (who retains audience sympathy even as he you-know-what, a trick only an actor as good as Ian Holm could manage) that your imagination helps you foresee a future for the brothers after they're done with breakfast. Definitely worth seeing, though not for $125 on an OOP DVD (surprised Criterion hasn't jumped on it).

    3. Oh, my seven-word review for "Big Night": "Ash punks not-quite-super Mario Brothers."

  2. Big Night is a sublime film. I've been waiting for a new DVD release for years.

    1. Are you listening, you bitches at Criterion?

  3. Looking forward to seeing this finally - anxiously awaiting one of the townspeople to return it to my library. I'm expecting to have a Julie and Julia problem where I ate every piece of food I had at home during the course of the movie.

    1. Just finished watching Big Night. Holy sh*t! What a great movie :-)