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Savoring Cinema

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Kitchen-Sink Drama: Italian restaurant owners Primo (Tony Shalhoub, right) and Secundo (Stanley Tucci) Pilaggi discuss the culinary arts in "Big Night."

Stanley Tucci cooks up a tasty film fest in 'Big Night'

By Richard von Busack

AT ONCE an incisive, intimate character comedy, perfect in its details, and a sage comment on assimilation, the captivating Big Night is one of the year's best films. It's set sometime in the late 1950s, but it goes against the trend of strict nostalgia.

"The idea of period is overdone in film, as is the idea of America's lost innocence," co-director Stanley Tucci tells me. "It's usually heavy-handed, what with the lighting and the filters and so forth. I wanted a very naturalistic look." The frankly lovable Big Night marks the directing debut of Tucci, an oft-seen character actor (Kiss of Death, Murder One). Tucci co-wrote Big Night with his cousin Joseph Tropiano and co-directed with his childhood pal Campbell Scott.

Big Night focuses, in a low-key way, on what may well be the last banquet at an Italian restaurant in a small resort town. The fine but ailing place is run by the Pilaggi brothers, Primo and Secundo (Tony Shalhoub and Tucci), who can't compete with the pizzazz of the Italian eatery up the street. "The man should be in prison for the food he serves," grouses one of the brothers about their competitor, but the man in question, Pascal (Ian Holm), knows what's what; he's a go-getter, not the kind of restaurateur who all but insults a customer who wants spaghetti and meatballs instead of risotto.

Pascal, who recognizes the Pilaggi brothers' talent, decides to send his great personal friend Louis Prima for dinner at their place. The brothers go crazy fixing the ultimate meal, and it's magic, a screen feast to match Babette's and the meals in Like Water for Chocolate. I liked it even though something in my Puritan soul rebels against food porn. The Pilaggis are indeed punished for this feast for the gods. Prima, of course, fails to materialize and misses out on the perfect dinner, and the brothers' quarrel over their trouble ends in a fight.

The film's tone somehow skirts melancholy. I say that even though I have doubts about the worth of perfection in a land where it takes more than perfection to succeed. The tale is a natural one for actors: the meal must go on. But the humor with which Tucci leavens Big Night appeals to discerning palates: dry in his and Shalhoub's serio-comic feuds, acrid in Scott's keenly funny turn as a crafty Cadillac salesman.

Big Night is enriched also by Isabella Rossellini, clad in Anna Magnani's own black slip and playing Pascal's chafing (and straying) wife. Even better is Minnie Driver as a loyal girl whose loyalty is betrayed. Her strong-featured character would be among the last of the East Coast girls of that era who didn't automatically get a nose job as a present for their 16th birthday. Whittling off the noses of the immigrants is one way of making them at home. Big Night underscores the tragedy of what gets bubbled away in the melting pot--to the brothers, America is a mixed blessing.

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I INTERVIEWED Tucci right before leaving for small-town Pennsylvania for a vacation, and my notes bore the scrawled phrase "The bitter bread of exile." My mom's handiwork--she was always scrambling Shakespeare quotes and then reciting them to me, so I'd get them wrong, too. The phrase (from Richard II, bard lovers) is actually "the bitter bread of banishment."

It seemed as if I spent half my trip in Pennsylvania searching out what small-town bakeries were left, just to avoid the air-puffed grocery-store fluff. I'm talking about bread, but it might as well have been film; if I'd wanted to see something more chewy than Independence Day, I would have had to drive for an hour. Big Night is a clean metaphor for the fate of the craftsman in a franchise-crazed film world.

"The idea," Tucci says, "of assimilation and losing a certain amount of character or culture is something that is very much on my mind. Being full-blooded Italian-American, it's sad to see the old ways die out. Don't get me wrong. I love contemporary stuff, but so many of the old ways are gone for good. Everything becomes very homogenized. The common expression you hear from people in the movie business is that they don't want the audience to have to work hard. Personally, I think the audience enjoys getting a little exercise."


Big Night (R; 107 min.), directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, written by Tucci and Joseph Tropiano, photographed by Ken Kelsch and starring Tucci and Tony Shalhoub.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro

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