At the time of its release, there was criticism levelled at Big Night's high-falutin' Continentalism: two idealistic Italian brothers seek only to bring their enlightened Continental cuisine to Americans and make a business of it, but the Yanks just want-a the meatball. I can't see it. To my eyes, this movie is an essentially American story about vision and compromise.
It's easy to get idealistic about what goes on in the kitchen, and Primo (Tony Shaloub) is a supreme food snob. But he is not just a perfectionist -- he is an artist, a proposition we have to take in faith in the early moments of the film.
His younger brother, Secondo (Stanley Tucci) is a businessman with ideals of his own. Unfortunately for his long-suffering girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver) they show up in the bedroom. It seems Secondo has something of a virgin/whore complex: he doesn't mind sleeping with the competition's wife (Isabella Rossellini), but can't quite muster up the wherewithall when it comes to his American beauty. Phyllis doesn't yet understand just what she represents to this sleek-suited dude. He wants marriage, he wants a nice house, he wants a Cadillac -- he does not want to settle for love in the back seat of a beat-up Oldsmobile.
Just around the corner is their competition -- a hopping, happening place where spectacle takes precedence over the culinary quality. Ian Holm's "Pascal" roars into the picture with an off-putting bluster and fury, a ridiculously comic Alpha male who takes command of every scene he's in. Secondo approaches him with hat in hand, looking for a loan, a favour, anything. Pascal promises him an evening with Louis Prima -- the only Italian who could possibly upstage Pascal.
I am not normally a fan of "food" movies -- and I don't much like cooking shows, either. It's all a form of Playboy entertainment: one person stands up and presents an airbrushed ideal that in fact requires the co-operation and talents of dozens of people to manufacture. Without a little mischief and humour, these scenarios very quickly get dreary. Fortunately the feast in Big Night plays itself like an extended joke, waiting for the mischevous punchline.
The audience knows what the punchline is, long before the brothers recognize it. This night is finally going to be their undoing.
I find the closing 40 minutes of the film incredibly satisfying. If the film's architecture has been a little studied in its set-up, the conclusion's stark simplicity has an emotional sumptuousness that speaks directly to the heart. Pascal's bombast dissipates like fog, finally revealing the cool menace beneath it. The two brothers fight on the beach the way two brothers who love each other fight -- they want to kill each other, but they can't bring themselves to actual blows. The final scene -- a long, unbroken take of Secondo preparing eggs for his brother and their hungover waiter -- is rightly heralded for its poetic tension. Scrambled eggs, for two brothers who couldn't quite pilot their ship to the glorious New World.
No words are spoken during this scene; the viewer is free to project whatever value he'd like. This simple act of care and provision ... is it enough to renew a modest, wiser sense of possibility in these two brothers?
Film Fave #7