Film and TV

Using Their Noodles

The best movie of the year has nothing to do with space aliens blowing up the White House. Or the durability of the Klan in Mississippi. Or shooting heroin in Scotland. The best movie of the year is about a couple of Italian immigrant brothers struggling to keep a restaurant open at the New Jersey shore in the 1950s.

Of course, Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci's Big Night is about other things, too--the ancient tug of war between art and commerce, the Old World colliding with the new, and every candidate-for-dogcatcher's favorite theme this fall, the American Dream. In a big way, it's also about food. But these first-time directors tuck the larger issues so nimbly beneath the sweet, ironic surface of their little film that at first we scarcely notice them. We're too busy taking in exquisite comic details like the fastidious grace of the younger brother, Secondo (Tucci), as he straightens the chairs in his austere, hopelessly empty dining room, or the incredulity on the mustachioed face of the older brother, Primo (Tony Shalhoub), when it is suggested that he drop his masterful risotto from the menu because no one in Jersey in 1958 even knows what risotto is.

"Who are these people in America?" the unshakable purist Primo asks. For him, the huge plates of spaghetti and meatballs pouring out of the kitchen at the big, noisy (and far more successful) Pascal's Italian Grotto, just across the street, are a descent into vulgarity and an affront to his artist's soul. Shy but steadfast, Primo would rather die than pander to philistines.

On the other hand, Secondo is the family pragmatist and its budding salesman--not that it does him any good. He lives by compromise, but to no avail. When the bank threatens foreclosure, Secondo maintains his unruffled surface, but he knows the end is near if he doesn't cook up a plan fast. When he wanders into the local Cadillac dealership and gets a glimpse of the latest shark-finned Eldorado, his head is turned by the ultimate American status symbol in a way his brother would never grasp. Secondo also tries to play both ends against the middle in his love life: Phyllis (Minnie Driver), his good-hearted American girlfriend, really cares for him, but he's also carrying on a secret affair with Gabriella (the luminous Isabella Rossellini), who happens to be the mistress of Pascal, his wily competitor in the restaurant business.

In a bittersweet comedy set aloft by expressive, beautifully shaded acting, Ian Holm's bumptious, back-slapping Pascal is the irreplaceable bull in the china shop. "Bite your teeth into the ass of life!" he bellows at Secondo and, as if to make good on his own command, comes up with a plan to save the brothers from financial oblivion. On the "big night" of the title, Pascal will deliver none other than bandleader Louis Prima--the kind of celebrity patron every unknown place needs--into the seat of honor at their restaurant, which is called the Paradise.

Desperate, Primo and Secondo sink their last dollars into the elaborate six-course feast that is the film's brilliant setpiece and its crucial turning point. The joy of the night is real. The two dozen guests include the barber from next door, the parish priest, both of Secondo's women, Pascal, even the fast-talking Cadillac dealer, whom the proprietor has invited on a whim. Naturally, the diners are enthralled by Primo's superb succession of dishes, and even the sternest Calvinist up in the balcony will likely be struck here by, yes, the erotic potential of great food. Warning: Do not go hungry into this Big Night; but if you must, better strap a pound of prosciutto and three kinds of Italian cheese to your leg. Not since Eat Drink Man Woman and Like Water for Chocolate has a movie reduced its audiences to salivating chowhounds like this one does.

It can also reduce you to helpless laughter--and to tears. As might be expected, many, many things go wrong even as Primo's high art is served triumphant on the plate in the name of Louis Prima. These filmmakers mine the possibilities with relish and--if you like--great taste. Tucci, best known as the suave killer in TV's hit series Murder One, not only directs and stars here; he also wrote the screenplay with a little help from his cousin Joseph Tropiano, and they raise new hope that the art of movie narrative hasn't been completely Schwarzeneggered back into the Stone Age. If Tucci and Tropiano and Scott have models, they're more likely the neorealist masterpieces of Isabella Rossellini's late, great father, Roberto, than the sitcoms of the boob tube. And if there's a guiding spirit behind their efforts, he's more akin to Charlie Chaplin than to Robin Williams.

In the end, they even know enough, these supposed novices, to let silence work some magic as the audience draws its own conclusions. Big Night's final scene--wordless, spare and just about perfect--shows nothing more than two men in a sunlit kitchen and the making of an omelet. But it reiterates every irony and concern in the entire film as it amplifies the metaphor at the heart of the matter. It is a supreme conclusion to a delectable piece of work.

Big Night.
Screenplay by Joseph Tropiano and Stanley Tucci. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci. With Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini and Ian Holm.