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'Big Night': Eat It Up

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 27, 1996

"Big Night," a scrumptious tale of great food and grand passions, belongs on the menu with such mouth-watering movie fare as "Babette's Feast" and "Like Water for Chocolate." Built around a pants-ripping pig-out at a failing New Jersey trattoria, this endearing romantic dramedy concerns a pair of Italian brothers in pursuit of the American Dream.

Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, regulars on TV's "Wings" and "Murder One" respectively, are ideally teamed as the bickering Pilaggi brothers, who are torn between their devotion to each other and their differing ideals as they make one last-ditch effort to save their restaurant.

Though hard-working and talented, Primo (Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci) have made a tactical error: Their quest to introduce fine Italian cuisine to America in the '50s is decades ahead of its time. While business has yet to build to a trickle at the Pilaggis' quaint Paradise eatery, the beautiful people pack into Pascal's, a spaghetti palace just across the street.

Pascal (Ian Holm), a viperish businessman, caters to his customers' backward tastes in food and furnishings: He serves meatballs to meatballs at tables with red-checked cloths while in the background, a brunette in a bullet bra butchers "O Sole Mio." "The rape of cuisine occurs there night after night," proclaims Primo, a brilliant chef who has yet to learn that his competition is Chef Boyardee. Secondo, the more practical Pilaggi, admires Pascal's savvy and wants to Americanize the menu -- maybe even eliminate risotto -- to compete with Spaghettis R Us. But Primo, the Rossini of risotto, refuses to compromise his artistry and the Paradise continues to hemorrhage.

In desperation, Secondo seeks advice from Pascal, who comes up with a surprisingly selfless plan to save the Paradise. He'll invite his good friend, bandleader Louis Prima, to dine at the Paradise and make sure the New York press is there to cover the event.

Determined to win Prima's patronage, the brothers put all their financial resources and culinary skills into creating a sumptuous, six-course banquet of 24 dishes. While Primo and his dutiful kitchen assistant (salsa star Marc Anthony) are absorbed in feverish preparations, Secondo picks up the flowers and after a clandestine rendezvous with Pascal's mistress, Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), the discounted liquor.

Though it's clear that Secondo and Gabriella's affair is ongoing, sex is relegated to the back burner on this occasion. Food, which is traditionally linked to sex in fiction, serves as neither carnal substitute nor aphrodisiac. As with "Babette's Feast," fine food is akin to worship. "To eat good food is to be close to God," Primo observes.

Though his comment is addressed to the pretty florist (Allison Janney) for whom he pines, Primo seems to believe that only a crumb would eat in bed. Still, he manages to charm the florist with his Old World ways. The Pilaggi brothers invented charm -- or maybe it was the Italians -- and they exude the stuff the way some men sweat bullets. It's nice that the film's females -- even back in the Dark Ages -- are drawn but not addicted to it.

Gabriella, knowing and seductive, clearly thinks of him as something of a between-meal snack. If she represents the Old World, then Secondo's American sweetheart (Minnie Driver), fresh and earnest, is the New. And the handsome Italian's inability to choose between the two is representative of his dilemma: Does he pack up and go back to Calabria with Primo or allow the metamorphosis to continue?

"Big Night," which Tucci directed with Campbell Scott (who plays a Cadillac salesman) and wrote with cousin Joseph Tropiano, offers no definitive answers to the questions it poses. The characters, so genuinely portrayed, drive the story to its end, but not to its obvious conclusion. For all anybody knows, they might still be there on the Jersey shore dreaming of turning Americans on to crostini with goat cheese.

Big Night is rated R for sexual content.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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