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Delicious 'Big Night'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 27, 1996

When a good movie revolves around the ritual reverence for food, it whets the appetite powerfully—and doubly. After watching such films as "Tampopo," "Babette’s Feast" and "Eat Drink Man Woman," you leave the theater artistically sated and bursting to dine.

Joining this gourmet company is "Big Night," a charming, delicate repast prepared by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott. A subtle, amusing saga about two Italian brothers and their quest to introduce fine cuisine to the American palate in the 1950s, it’s the moviegoing equivalent of great eating.

When immigrants Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci) set up their small Italian restaurant, Paradise, they’re faced with daunting competition. This Jersey shore community is dominated by a tacky meatball-and-spaghetti establishment run by sleazy owner Pascal (Ian Holm). It caters to the simplistic view of Italian food.

Paradise, the brothers believe, will bring art to the masses: Primo is an extraordinary chef who takes religious pride in his dishes. And Secondo, who worries about the bills, will be the stylish maitre d’. Unfortunately, the residents aren’t ready for this esoteric vision. When a female customer is served a dish of risotto (which happens to be Primo’s specialty), she looks at it with grave disappointment. The meal needs something on the side, she tells Secondo, like meatballs and spaghetti.

Primo is horrified. "Maybe," he says, with restrained sarcasm and stilted English, "I should make mashed potato for the other side."

Paradise, clearly, is in trouble. In fact, the restaurant will face foreclosure by the end of the month if drastic action isn’t taken. Without the Paradise, the brothers will be resigned to working for Pascal or returning to Italy. When he hears famed Italian-American music star Louis Prima is playing in the area, Secondo decides to create a publicity-engendering "big night" in the singer’s honor at the restaurant. Pascal, who claims to know Prima, assures Secondo he can persuade the musician to attend. "After tonight," Secondo assures Primo, "everything will be different."

He’s right, but not in the way he’s anticipating. What follows is the set-piece of the movie, an extended, delectable banquet that features Primo’s most extraordinary creations. It’s a coming-together of all the performers we have enjoyed in the movie, including charismatic Minnie Driver (from "Circle of Friends"), who plays Secondo’s girlfriend; Isabella Rossellini, as Pascal’s sexy, straight-talking mistress, Gabriella; and Scott, who has a delightful short role as Bob, an oily car salesman.

The movie, which Tucci cowrote with Joseph Tropiano, is clearly about any dichotomy you’d like: Hollywood vs. independent art films (such as "Big Night," which won the screenwriting award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival), old country values vs. new world commercialism. But it’s the quiet, unspoken love between brothers—buttressed by the subtle, almost vaudevillian exchanges between Tucci and Shalhoub—that stays with you. That and the food, of course.

BIG NIGHT (R) — Contains sexual situations and profanity. Has some Italian with subtitles.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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