Does Bruce Wayne fit more than one or two meals into a day? When? Is he shoving food in his mouth while he’s driving, unwrapping protein bars at odd moments?
How are Professor Charles Xavier’s table manners, really? If you saw that suit up close, would you see crumbs and espresso dribbles?
Does George Smiley cook for himself, in drab light and solitude, watching the water boil a sausage as he puzzles through double-crosses?
What’s it like to lunch with Barry from High Fidelity? Are you laughing so hard you’re shooting cola out your nose, or can you hardly wait for the check to come?
It’s all speculation. Everybody’s gotta eat, but in most cases, an author, director, producer, editor, or focus group decided it doesn’t help viewers understand anything about their characters to waste time in the middle of the story feeding them.
On the other hand, here’s Elf burping and sweetening. Here’s Ulysses Everett T. McGill turning down the offer of hot gopher-on-a-stick, which says as much about his high self-regard as his disdain for Fop pomade. Here’s Peeta telling Katniss he’s only allowed to eat food his family can’t sell, Penny touching Sheldon’s onion ring, Charlie Chaplin entertaining ladies with dancing dinner rolls, and Aunt Bee serving Clara’s Nesselrode pie recipe to a visiting flatterer.
A man who looks like a vagrant spells out “52” with bacon across scrambled eggs, and we feel a sad thrill.
Subtract the events of A Christmas Carol, and Victorian England’s most famous fictional moment might be Oliver demanding his humanity in the form of more gruel—unless it’s Alice curiously nibbling and drinking her way through the door to Wonderland.
Aren’t you glad Tony Stark wanted to try that shawarma place?
Sometimes fictional food is a pleasant pause in the action; sometimes it’s crucial platform for exposition. And sometimes it’s Uma Thurman’s $5 milkshake—a telling detail about a person. Sitting down to do what pretty much everybody does at least a couple times a day can advance the plot of a movie, show, novel, or serialized streaming dramedy—and occasionally the food itself takes center stage. Possibly because we’re kind of hungry at the moment, The A.V. Club has decided to spend time looking at some memorable foods in storytelling.
Let’s start with the timpáno, a drum-shaped Italian dish. Imagine a cylindrical pie containing meat, cheese, tomato sauce, pasta, hard-boiled eggs, and, in the case of the film Big Night, a lot of vain hope. Two Italian brothers, still learning English, have opened a struggling restaurant. Americans aren’t used to the authentic Italian recipes they serve, and Primo, the older brother, refuses to compromise what he sees as his art.
This results in one of the best-ever deployments of the word “philistine”:
That’s Stanley Tucci as Secondo, the businessman and public face of the restaurant, and Tony Shalhoub as Primo, back in the kitchen. Shalhoub is magnificently devoted to the anger his character feels toward the boors he stoops to feed.
The bank wants money, and if the brothers can’t come up with it, they may have to give up and return to Italy. The owner of a successful competing Italian restaurant (which serves mediocre, Americanized food) won’t give the two of them a loan, but offers them jobs. When they refuse, this friendly competitor promises to help by calling in a favor from an old friend, the famous bandleader Louis Prima. If he visits the brothers’ failing restaurant, the accompanying publicity will revive their dream.
For the occasion, they plan a meal of their greatest hits, with the timpáno as the centerpiece. The dish isn’t cheap to make, so they end up betting everything on this one night.
As much as anything, Big Night romanticizes that period mid-century where expectations of conformity hadn’t yet given way to the open indulgences of the ’60s. It’s mesmerizing to watch Stanley Tucci and friends leverage that cultural conservatism, using Italian food and the struggles of running a restaurant to work through a concise metaphor for art vs. commerce, the responsibility we have toward family, and the way hope and ambition can blind us to reality.
Co-directors Campbell Scott and Tucci (who co-wrote the script with his cousin, Joseph Tropiano) manage to make a movie about food that isn’t a foodie-fetish end in itself. (See Mike D’Angelo’s recent takedown of Babette’s Feast for a film that makes the food beautiful and the context dull.) As they explore the food-as-art metaphor and tell the brothers’ story, Campbell and Tucci provide a lesson in food photography: Context and expectation are what make the food in Big Night look so good. The timpáno is not elevated by surreal, over-lit, glamorously sumptuous beauty shots. The imperfection makes it look like something actual people eat, and that helps convey the brothers’ abilities to viewers. Look at the ragged tip when they pull the first timpáno slice:
That’s not how Olive Garden would present The Drum. Maybe budget restrictions kept the food cinematography from looking glamorous. (It costs a lot of money to get the food to look like it does in Olive Garden ads.) Still, the imperfection conveys authenticity, which helps Big Night’s central crisis feel real. All the food prepared for the titular Big Night—Primo’s magnum opus—seems to come from the real world. As viewers watch the dinner preparation unfold—the brothers cooking together, flipping scallops and potatoes in pans side by side, applying olive oil as a finishing touch on plates of food, wheeling course after course out to the dining room—they become more invested in the brothers’ success. The sheer quantity of food makes the expense of the meal obvious, and an ominous pall begins to settle in even as they enjoy themselves.
Louis Prima never shows. As the brothers slowly accept they’ve spent all their money on nothing but a lovely evening, tensions release into a passionate fight: “You give to me nothing!” yells Secondo, who wants to make their lives work in America. “Why do you want to stay here?” Primo shouts in Italian after the two wrestle. “This place is eating us alive!”
All the happy emotions of the big meal have devolved into rage and despondency, made more intense by the embarrassment of having been suckered by their competitor’s deliberately deceitful promise of a visit by the famous bandleader. (He figured the brothers would work for him after they failed, but they continue to refuse even after their fight.)
Primo and Secondo are humiliated, ashamed, broke, and without options. They’re smarting from the words each spoke in anger. So when they gather in the kitchen after sunrise, and Secondo cooks a simple, cheap frittata and serves it wordlessly—in one take, a stunt that Alfonso Cuarón couldn’t pull off any better—the moment is emotionally fraught and ambiguously lovely:
Out of context, this scene seems almost like a parody of an Altman or Scorsese one-take grandstander. As it begins, though, we’re feeling the vacuum of energy that follows a release of intense emotion. When the camera never cuts, never blinks, the breath-holding steadiness helps the movie arrive at a sense of profundity.
That frittata is one of the most delectable-looking bits of food on film because of what it means and how it’s shown—not because of how beautifully it’s lit, or how gracefully it’s shot. Secondo’s frittata is not an elaborate drum filled with every kind of food. It’s a recipe-less dish of reconciliation, the food they eat as they accept that life is going to be different from now on.
This long, quiet scene seems like the simple, possibly inevitable conclusion of an elaborate, ultimately heartbreaking evening. If the timpáno was full of vain hope, the frittata looks like it’s made from forgiveness and brotherly devotion.
Upcoming: From the kitchens of Roseanne Conner and Carmela Soprano