The difference between a movie that makes you admire food and one that makes you love food is the difference between a dinner table posed like a still life in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence and a clove of garlic sliced so intently you can practically inhale its ornery perfume in Scorsese’s GoodFellas. One engages the eye and the other arouses all five senses. One is easy to like and the other is hard not to love.
Big Night is a movie to love, and not just because you’re guaranteed to leave the theater desperate for a gigantic, calorie-busting Italian meal. The bighearted production, a codirectorial debut by actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott and a debut screenwriting collaboration between Tucci and his cousin Joseph Tropiano, sings with the kind of lyricism that fills the air when you’re eating a great meal: All involved know they’re in on something wonderful, and feel blessed to be sharing the table.
The story belongs to Primo Pilaggi (Tony Shalhoub) and his younger brother, Secondo (Tucci), hardworking, sad-eyed Italian restaurateurs who run the Paradise, a small cucina in a late-1950s New Jersey shore town. Business is deathly slow, but Primo, the chef, is an artist who refuses to compromise: When a boorish diner, one of the very few paying customers, asks for a side of familiar spaghetti because she’s unnerved by a beautiful risotto, he pitches a fit — not of prima donnahood, but of passion. How could anyone dis sacred risotto in such a way? Secondo, who manages the business, is the more practical one, the American in training; he knows how close to failure the business creeps.
Moreover, he’s confounded by the success of the happening nightspot across the street, which, run by Pascal (Ian Holm) and his mistress/hostess, Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), packs customers in by serving cheap food tarted up with glamour. ”The rape of cuisine occurs there night after night!” pronounces Primo, bitterly. Pascal offers to hire the brothers for himself — he knows the value of their extraordinary talent — but they refuse. Then he makes them another, wildly generous offer: He’ll send his friend Louis Prima, the popular Italian-American big band musician, to dine at the Paradise, and Prima will surely be impressed enough to save the Pilaggi enterprise by word of mouth. So the brothers take all their ardor and all their remaining money and throw it into producing a masterpiece — a ”big night.”
Big Night throws all its ardor into the meal, too. Each dish, masterfully prepared, is shot (by director of photography Ken Kelsch) with the kind of gourmand’s adoring eye that made Like Water for Chocolate, Babette’s Feast, and Eat Drink Man Woman such appetite builders. But the real feast is in the mix of characters, each so finely and unschmaltzily delineated in a script so confident and controlled (Tucci and Tropiano took home this year’s Sundance screenwriting award) that even the most passing of participants comes alive. Tucci, the charismatic character actor who made ABC’s Murder One his own last season, modulates his intensity in a brotherly pas de deux with the wonderful Shalhoub (from NBC’s Wings); Holm crackles with the kind of energy he brought to Chariots of Fire; Rossellini’s mature sensuality is played to dramatic advantage against the greener, more angular physicality of British actor Minnie Driver (Circle of Friends), effectively American as Secondo’s undervalued girlfriend. Campbell Scott (Dying Young) steps out from behind the camera to create an idiosyncratic Cadillac salesman who winds up at the table; Allison Janney, a terrific New York stage actress, blooms before our eyes as the florist for whom Primo shyly pines. And international salsa star Marc Anthony almost walks away with the show with barely a word as a kitchen assistant.
In a breathtaking, unbroken, wordless scene at the end of Big Night, Secondo makes a breakfast omelette for his brother — a dish that is, as any cooking teacher will tell you, at once the most basic and most difficult thing to do right. Flipping eggs in a pan with a practiced wrist, Tucci makes art look easy. And delicious. A