Big Night

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

The film, presumably set in a small town on the New Jersey Shore in the 1950s, tells the story of two Italian immigrant brothers from Abruzzo who own and operate a restaurant called “Paradise.” One brother, Primo (Tony Shalhoub), is a brilliant, perfectionist chef who chafes under their few customers’ expectations of “Americanized” Italian food. Their uncle’s offer for them to return to Rome to help with his restaurant is becoming more and more appealing to Primo. The other brother, Secondo (Tucci), is the restaurant’s manager, who is enamored of the possibilities presented by their new endeavor and life in America. Despite Secondo’s efforts and Primo’s magnificent food, their restaurant is failing.

Secondo’s elusive success as a businessman makes him unable to commit to his girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver), and he has recently been sleeping with Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), the wife of a competitor. Her husband’s self-named restaurant, Pascal’s (Ian Holm), has enjoyed great success despite (or perhaps due to) the mediocre, uninspired food served there. Desperate to keep Paradise afloat, Secondo asks Pascal for a loan. Pascal demurs, repeating a past offer to have the brothers come work for him. This Secondo in turn refuses; he and his brother want their own restaurant. In an apparent display of generosity, Pascal instead insists that he will persuade Louis Prima to dine at Paradise when he comes to town, assuming the celebrity jazz singer’s patronage will revitalize the brothers’ business. Primo and Secondo plunge themselves into preparations for this “big night”, spending their last savings on the food and inviting dozens of people (including a newspaper reporter) to join them in a magnificent feast centered around a timpano (a form of timballo, a complicated baked pasta dish). Primo pours his heart into each dish, lavishing care and great expertise on the cooking.

As they wait for Prima and his entourage to arrive, the crowd indulges in the exquisite food and partakes in a fabulous celebration. Hours pass, however, and it becomes apparent that the famous singer is not coming. Phyllis catches Secondo and Gabriella kissing and runs away to the beach. At Gabriella’s insistence, Pascal admits that he never even called Louis Prima, thus ending the party.

Secondo follows Phyllis to the beach where they have a final quarrel. Primo and Secondo have a fiery, heartwrenching argument, chafing at their mutual differences. In the wee hours of the morning, Pascal admits to Secondo that he set the brothers up for failure; not as revenge for Secondo’s affair with Gabriella but because then the brothers would have no choice but to either return to Italy or work for Pascal. Secondo denies him, saying they will never work for him. The film closes with an uninterrupted, nearly wordless long take: as dawn breaks, Secondo silently cooks an omelette. When it is done, he divides it among three plates, giving one to Cristiano (Marc Anthony), their waiter, and eating one himself. Primo hesitantly enters: Secondo hands him the last plate. They eat without speaking, but lay their arms across one another’s shoulders as they do so.


Other than films that portray marching band in a positive light, I have to say that cooking/restaurant themed films are right up there with topics that Hollywood seems to ignore, or use just a punch line, with a few exceptions, such as Julie & Julia, for instance. Big Night is one of these films. What is notable about this picture is that it was made before we were bombarded with cooking shows, celebrity chefs, etc.

What is this about?

Despite its superb cuisine, an Italian restaurant run by immigrant brothers verges on bankruptcy. But the siblings risk it all to save their bistro when they get the chance to cook up a feast for bandleader Louis Prima.

What did I like?

Food. The foodie in the house called this “food porn” because of the succulent cuisine that was being prepared. Now that I’ve had a few moments to digest it, that does make sense. If you’re the kind of person that is really into food, especially Italian, this is going to either make you really happy or act as a giant tease!

Work with what you have. Most low-budget independent films, especially older ones, look like they were made in someone’s basement and yet, somehow, this manages to pull off being the kind of flick that doesn’t look cheap. In fact, other than the fact that 99% of it takes place in the restaurant, nothing set-wise would have you thinking this is an low-budget film. The filmmakers really took advantage of what they had to work with.

What didn’t I like?

Kitchen Nightmare. Through no fault of its own, while watching this film, I felt as if I were watching an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. There is nothing nightmarish about the restaurant, mind you, but the way is looks put me in the mindset of those places he goes to on the show. Rustic, for lack of a better term, east coast Italian family restaurant. I half expected Ramsay to show up, I kid you not!

Louis. I realize that at the time this was made, Louis Prima had been passed on for some time, but they could have hired someone to play him, or use clips from his performances. I can guarantee that about 90% or more of the audience have no clue who Prima is, but they make him out to be as big a name as Frank Sinatra.

Big Night was aptly named because everything hinges on the big night of food for Louis Prima. This is one of those films you put on when you just have a desire to check out something different from explosions, over-emotional women and their dating woes, talking animals, etc. If I had to say whether this is worth a watch or not, I have to go with yes. This is a really well-made film that will have you wanting to go out for Italian, or at least make a omlette, by the time it is done. Check it out!

4 out of 5 stars


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