Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Big Night is a food-film classic good enough to devour

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Thanksgiving is upon us, so let’s gorge ourselves on films about food.


Big Night (1996)

One of the most delectable films ever made about food—and everything that goes with it—Big Night exudes a warmth, depth, and nuance of character and relationship dynamics that’s impossible to resist. Directed by Stanley Tucci (who stars) and Campbell Scott (who co-stars) from a stellar script by Tucci and Joseph Tropiano, this acclaimed 1996 indie charts the ordeal of brothers Primo (Tony Shaloub) and Secondo (Tucci) to save their struggling 1950s New Jersey Shore restaurant, Paradise, from bank foreclosure—a fate caused by the success of the rival across-the-street Italian eatery run by Pascal (Ian Holm). Unlike Pascal, who panders to his American customers, the uncompromising Primo believes in teaching his patrons about the magnificence of “real” Italian cuisine, as evidenced by an opening sequence in which an unhappy diner (Caroline Aaron) requests a side of spaghetti with her seafood risotto, and an outraged Primo responds by slandering her as a “criminal.”

With Primo unwilling to budge from his rigid principles, it’s left to the managerial Secondo to try to stave off disaster, which he seemingly does when he meets with Pascal and the businessman promises to have his friend, jazz superstar Louis Prima, dine at Paradise. That sets in motion Big Night’s primary dramatic premise, though Tucci and Tropiano’s nimble script layers that conceit with romantic subplots involving Primo and a local florist (Allison Janney), and Secondo and both his earnest girlfriend (Minnie Driver) and his on-the-side lover (Isabella Rossellini), the latter of whom is also involved with Pascal.

These narrative strands are infused with both lively humor and an underlying strain of desperation, and visualized by Tucci and Scott via a series of prolonged tracking shots in and around the restaurant that would make Martin Scorsese proud, as well as long takes—culminating with an absolutely stunning closer—that allow the phenomenal performances from Tucci, Shaloub, Driver, Rossellini, and Holm to simmer and breathe. At once hilarious, heartbreaking and uplifting, it’s an epicurean portrait of the restaurant business’ push-pull between idealism and practicality, the artistry of cooking, and the unifying communal power of food.

Availability: Big Night is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.