The Austin Chronicle

Big Night

Rated R, 107 min. Directed by Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott. Starring Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Ian Holm, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, Campbell Scott.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 4, 1996

Big Night is, in a word, delicious -- not since Eat Drink Man Woman has a movie celebrated the joy of cooking and the exhilaration of eating with such mouthwatering gusto. And like Ang Lee's 1994 film, it effortlessly integrates its undeniable love of fine cuisine into a narrative of familial bonds in which blood is often irrationally, but reliably, thicker than water. (In other words, it's something more than a cinematic rendering of Gourmet magazine.) Set in an unnamed town on the Jersey shore sometime in the Fifties, Big Night centers on the plight of two Italian immigrant brothers, Primo and Secondo, who are struggling to keep the doors of their little restaurant open. The problem is one of vulgar American tastes: While the flashy Italian eatery around the corner does booming business serving transatlantic bastardizations like spaghetti and meatballs, the brothers' trattoria offers a bill of fare faithful to their native land's culinary traditions. When their friendly restaurateur rival proposes to induce Louis Prima, a popular big-band musician of the day, to dine at their establishment, the Brothers Pilaggi see the opportunity as their last chance to save the business. What ensues is a meal to end all meals, an Epicurean blowout, a gourmand's wet dream. (The food looks so good, so appetizing up there onscreen that you'll find yourself mentally savoring every morsel.) As it turns out, however, the big night is not momentous for the reasons you might expect; rather, it is an evening in which all things finally --and somewhat messily -- converge in a manner that's in marked contrast to the perfection of the banquet's courses. Tucci -- who pulls a hat trick as screenwriter, co-director, and actor -- always strives for simplicity, never making more of something than it actually is. The unadorned result is a startlingly empathetic observation of human behavior, particularly in the sibling relationship between the principal characters. As the frustrated pragmatist and his tempestuous brother, respectively, Tucci and Shalhoub give authentic performances in every sense, from their gestures and accents down to their brotherly interactions marked by a lifetime of familiarity. To turn a phrase, these guys can't live with -- or without -- each other. As an actor on television series such as Wise Guy and Murder One, Tucci has traded on characterizations with a hard, flinty edge; here, his portrayal of a man beset by disappointment is a wonderful surprise. Obviously his labor of love, Big Night serves Tucci -- and everyone involved with it -- well. It's that infrequent moviegoing experience that doesn't leave you hungry for something more.

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