Monday, July 17, 2006

Film Fave #8: Big Night

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


DarkoV said...

Wonderful write-up.
Your comment, "this movie is an essentially American story about vision and compromise", is painfully true. Never has compromise seemed such a sale of one's principles to the bottom-feeding son of the devil. The compromise has left the First and the Second brother (How great are those names, Primo & Secondo?!?!) with nothing. Though I loved the ending scene, where you do see that Secondo has equisite cooking skills only previously associated with Primo, I thought the restaurant, appropriately titled The Paradise, should have accidently burned down after the sated guests left...and a Louis Primo tune should have viciously played in the background.
Because? There was no compromise, no paradise. Only unappreciated edible treasures thrown upon the rocky shores of NYC.
Ian Holm, doing a remarkable turn as a well-tailored Lucifer, is superb as are Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub, the latter two playing well off each other in carefully played out subtlety.
A gem of a movie, whether you're watching for food or just waiting to be served.

Reel Fanatic said...

great review ... Anyone who criticizes this perfect little movie needs to ask why they bother to watch flicks in the first place .. I just love movies about food .. If I may suggest another one, the German flick "Mostly Martha," out now on DVD, is just charming

Searchie said...

When watching "Big Night," I couldn't help but compare and contrast it with "Babette's Feast," which would have to be on my list of 15 favorite films.

"Big Night" is an unusual and intriguing choice. Nice one.

DarkoV said...

Searchie, While I did tremendously enjoy seeingBabbette's Feast once, watching it again would be a dinner invitation I'd gladly decline. I'd have to say the same for Reel Fanatic's Mostly Martha, even thought I enjoyed that movie more than Babette. The only food-related movie that comes to mind that I'd see again would be Tampopo.

Please, go ahead. Let me have it.

DarkoV said...

When I referred to food movies I'd see again, I would, of course, include The Big Night in the group of two..

Searchie said...

“Please, go ahead. Let me have it.”

Shall I beat you with "Cailles en Sarcophage" (quail in a sarcophagus, à la Babette), then?

But it’s not about food. It’s about choices … and life.

Whisky Prajer said...

Ah, Searchie - who better to raise the spectre of Babbette's Feast? I do like that film, but it has acquired some ironic baggage: Mennonites are crazy about it. When it came out, our churchly publications exhorted us to attend (I guess they finally came to grips with the fact that we were already watching all the "bad" movies, anyway). Groups of Mennos were marshalled to see the movie in force. And ever since, a regular attender can depend on a yearly church video night, or at least one sermonic reference every six to eight months. I've got enough sand in my system to balk at religiously proscribed viewing, no matter how good the movie may be, so I can't quite justify including it on my list.

DarkoV said...

Oh no, WP, sounds like the Mennonites did to Babette's Feast what Catholics did to acoustic guitars (via those intolerable folk masses.

It's been well over 30 years and I still wince when I hear a basic acoustic strum. Why did the Church pick on folk music? They could have done a service to us all by, say, having an Osmond service. Oh, wait a minute, right aisle, wrong Church.

Searchie, your "But it’s not about food. It’s about choices … and life." wounds me deeply. Why didn't you simply threaten to beat me about the head with a ficelle. I much prefer the short term physical punishment than the long term spiritual one.

Scott said...

Great review of a great movie but you left out one big factor: the music. This movie has one of the most delightful soundtracks I've ever encountered (though the CD is sadly out of print -- what's with that?)

I believe I once put Claudio Villa's 'Tic-Tic-Ta' on a mix CD for you -- did its sublime silliness not work for you? ;)

Searchie said...


sigh How well I understand your aversion. I've avoided "The Passion of the Christ" for much the same reason(s).


For you, I reserve the long, slow Slivovitz torture.

DarkoV said...

Cherie Searchie,
As long as the Sljivovica is home-brewed, saved from the chemicals of distillers, I will willingly be tortured. Would a hunk of hleb and a Gavrilovic be too much to ask, as well?

You would be most kind.

Whisky Prajer said...

Scott - you got me running to my CD collection to see if in fact you had included that divine little number. Sorry to say it does not exist in CD form, but I wonder if it wasn't included in the first mixed tape you gave me, back when lounge music was once again the rage. Say, now that my tape deck is scotched, I sure could use a CD like that (hint, hint)!

Whisky Prajer said...

reel fanatic - I wasn't aware of Mostly Martha, but I'll keep a look-out for it. Thanks for the recommendation.