Big Night
directed by Stanley Tucci
& Campbell Scott
(Samuel Goldwyn, 1996)

Most people would rather not know what goes on behind the kitchen doors of their favorite restaurant. Big Night is about very little else.

The restaurant is the Paradise, and it could be a paradise, except for one thing: No one ever eats there. That's because the chef, Primo (Tony Shalhoub), is such a stickler for excellent cuisine that he refuses to cook anything people are likely to order, including a side order of spaghetti and meatballs for an older couple who were expecting one with their risotto.

Consequently, things are not going well for Primo and his brother, Secondo (Stanley Tucci), who manages the restaurant. They've put all they have and more into the Paradise, and if they don't resume payments on their bank loan, their restaurant will be closed by month's end.

So Secondo decides to risk all in a last-ditch effort to save it. His plan -- the brainchild of his across-the-street competitor, Pascal (Ian Holm) -- is to hold a dinner party for famous jazz trumpeter Louie "The Lip" Prima, a bona fide celebrity and a personal friend of Pascal's. That way, Pascal tells him, the Paradise will get lots of publicity, people will try the food and success will be assured. Secondo is not so sure, but he's run out of options.

What follows then, is simply the working out of Pascal's plan -- one hilarious detail after another: Preparing the restaurant, putting together the menu and assembling the guest list, which includes everyone from Secondo's own little side dish, Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), to a Cadillac salesman who's taken nearly everyone for a ride by the time the movie's over.

But The Big Night is about much more than the back-room workings of an Italian-American restaurant in the late 1950s. It's about the back-room relationship between two hard-working immigrant brothers, two men with a common dream and very different ways of making it come true.

Primo is the visionary. For him, food is the finest of the fine arts. It's a joy to watch him cook, and an even greater joy to watch his dinner guests go into orgasmic frenzies over one course after another.

Secondo is the pragmatist, charged with the unenviable task of injecting just enough reality into Primo's dream so they don't both end up sauteeing onions in Pascal's meatball house.

It's this simple conflict that co-writer/co-director Tucci draws out into a genial two-hour film that often leaves you musing harder than laughing, but never leaves you uninvolved.

Big Night is low-key, well-acted and sumptuously filmed. It succeeds as both a look at a time and a tribute to an art form. In short, it's a ciao call of the highest order. Watch it with relish.

But not on an empty stomach.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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