Big Night (1996): Love Poem to Good Food and Family Feud, Starring and Co-Directed by Stanley Tucci

Sundance Film Festival 1996 (Dramatic Competition)–Just when it seemed that the American screen was preoccupied with dramas about dysfunctional families, a well-crafted dramedy (or serio comedy), Big Night, swept writing awards in festivals and pleased the indie public.

A lyrical love poem to food and family, the film reflected the belief of protagonist Primo, that “To eat good food is to be close to God.”

Like Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, and Eat Drink Man Woman, the film cashes in, as the Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan observed, on the overlap between audiences for sophisticated indies and those for good restaurants.

Gifted indie actor Stanley Tucci co-wrote the script with his cousin, Joseph Tropiano, and co-directed the film with Campbell Scott, who also plays a small part.

Determined to make it big in America, Secondo (Tucci) and older brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub) have emigrated from Italy. Set in the 1950s on the Jersey shore, Big Night centers on the Paradise restaurant, located amid Eisenhower-era philistines, who insist on spaghetti and meatballs and don’t understand, as Primo says, “sometimes spaghetti wants to be alone.”

Indeed, Primo’s culinary genius, a great asset, turns out to be an impediment, for he is a perfectionist who refuses to lower his standards. Primo is continually shocked by American eating habits–“She’s a criminal,” he says, about a woman who orders spaghetti and risotto. Primo would like to believe that, “if you give people time, they will learn,” but Secondo knows time is running out. Eager for a quicker, more conventional success, he has to battle his brother and the impatient bankers determined to foreclose on the Paradise.

Stiff competition comes from a thriving neighboring Pascal’s Italian Grotto, the ultimate 1950s Italian restaurant, bathed in red lights like a bordello, with a glamorous hostess (Isabella Rossellini) and celebrity photos on the walls.

The volatile, contentious relationship between the brothers reflects an ear for the unintentionally poetic musings of people struggling with a foreign language. Though Primo hates his rival Pascal (“The man should be in prison for the food he serves”), Secondo envies his success. When Pascal offers help by convincing celebrated musician Louis Prima to dine at the Paradise, Secondo accepts, and preparations for the big night begin. Of course, as in Waiting for Guffman, the eagerly-awaited celeb never arrives.

Warmhearted and bittersweet, the plot is simple, but the characterization is deft. With an understanding for the virtue of taking time in building mood, Big Night avoids the over-indulgent performances that often damage movies directed by actors, as in the case of John Turturro or Sean Penn.