Big Night

tumblr_m61hx9LPLt1rpb43tThis fall has been the worst movie season in recent memory; Hollywood has been dropping one expensive, star-studded turd after another. So I’m happy to see that Big Night, which has wowed critics and tickled art-house audiences, is breaking into a wider release. It has no stars, just fine actors. It has no gimmicks, just a good story well told. We’ve reached the point where independent films, which used to be artsy and inaccessible, are now reviving the lost art of simplicity.

Stanley Tucci, a character actor whose brilliant work on last season’s Murder One reached too few viewers, wears four hats in this labor of love: co-producer, co-writer (with cousin Joseph Tropiano), co-director (with Campbell Scott, who has a small role as a car dealer), and co-star — with another unsung actor, Tony Shalhoub of NBC’s Wings. Having made money for other people, Tucci was ready to make art for a change. His movie reflects his own status as an artist in a commercial industry.

It’s the late ’50s, and Italian brothers Primo (Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci) are trying to keep their small New Jersey restaurant, The Paradise, from sinking into bankruptcy. Primo, the cook, thinks of his work as art that must retain its integrity — no meatballs with his risotto, even if the customers want them. Secondo, the manager, respects Primo’s culinary genius but knows it’s killing their business. Across the street is a loud, lurid joint named after its owner Pascal (Ian Holm at his funniest), an effusive Italian who sells American patrons their stereotypical idea of Italian dining. “The rape of cuisine,” Primo calls it. Shrewd business, Secondo might call it. Pascal, who likes the brothers (though Primo loathes him), offers them a last shot at success: He’ll ask Louis Prima, the popular singer, to dine at The Paradise.

Preparing for Prima’s visit, the brothers go all out, inviting friends and lovers to join them for what can only be decribed as an orgy of food. Be prepared to hear many moans of pleasure and pain at Big Night, which serves dish after dish that looks orgasmically delicious. Be prepared to hit the aisle running towards a restaurant after the movie, too. Local Italian eateries should stock their kitchens accordingly. The movie has many lively moments, but it also knows when to sit still. There’s a riveting final shot of Secondo and Primo in the kitchen that lasts five minutes without a cut. Nothing happens and everything happens. (Director of photography Ken Kelsch, a master of nailed-down camerawork, did similar things in Bad Lieutenant.) And the actors-directors do fine work with the cast: Minnie Driver is more vibrant here than she is in Sleepers, and Isabella Rossellini loosens up and has fun.

Tucci and Shalhoub work beautifully together, expertly drawing Primo and Secondo’s fraternal tensions without resorting to clichés. Big Night is a triumph for everyone involved, but especially for Stanley Tucci. He’s spent years serving the meatballs audiences wanted. Now he has made an exquisite dish of risotto, and, best of all, audiences are eating it up.

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