Hidden Gems: Big Night
By Kyle Lee
January 26, 2016
As my first entry into the Hidden Gems vault, I thought it best to start with my favorite movie, one which just happens to fit the criterion of the series. Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s Big Night, from 1996. Although a critical hit at the time, even ending up in Roger Ebert’s top 10 of the year and winning a decent number of non-Oscar awards, Big Night was still under-seen and now seems to mostly be talked about only by those with a passion for food.
But Tucci himself, acting as lead actor/director/writer/producer of the project, said he never set out to make a “food movie.” He set out to make a movie about the struggle between art and commerce. He was acting in movies he didn’t care about while complaining about the lack of great scripts and movies out there. So he decided to take his career in his own hands and make a movie for which he truly had passion.
What he made is a study about all the important things in life and about having your priorities in order. It’s a movie about family, about love, relationships, business, the struggle of an immigrant with both the language and culture, the good times and the bad times and everything in between. It’s a movie about life.
The story is that of Italian immigrant brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci). They run a failing restaurant, Paradise, in the 1950s. Primo acts as the perfectionist chef and Seco the sous chef/front of house/manager. On a night where there are only two paying customers in the restaurant, Primo and Seco argue over the woman’s desire for a side of spaghetti with her risotto.
Seco politely tries to tell the woman that because risotto is rice and spaghetti is pasta, both are starches and two starches don’t go together, really. Quickly he relents, wanting to keep his only customers happy, even though the woman also has the audacity to want meatballs with her spaghetti (spaghetti and meatballs being an American dish, as the meat and the pasta would be separate courses in the dinner of an Italian).
“Why?” says Primo when Seco comes back to place the order for the spaghetti. “But they’re both starches! Maybe, I make a mashed potato for another side! No, I go talk to her, this woman is a criminal.” Eventually, he throws his hands in the air and says, “No, she’s a philistine. She no understand anyway.” When they later sit and talk about the night and Primo’s desire to serve people only real authentic Italian food, Primo says “If we give the people time, they will learn.” Secondo, knowing how little money they have, counters “We’re a restaurant, not a fucking school.”
This is contrasted against the restaurant down the street run by the charming Pascal (Ian Holm). Pascal’s place is packed every night, and when Seco goes to visit him, on nearly every single table he sees a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, along with happy customers. Seco goes to Pascal to ask for money, but Pascal counters with an offer to have his friend who’s coming into town, jazz star Louis Prima and his band, come dine at Paradise. The ensuing publicity from a big star eating there will make people want to come eat at the restaurant and so business will boom. That sets in motion the story leading up to the big night of the title. Seco must manage his relationship with Phyllis (Minnie Driver), while he’s cheating on her with Pascal’s wife Gabriella (Isabella Rosselini). Primo, meanwhile, must cook the meal of his life while awkwardly getting something going with Ann (Allison Janney), the flower lady in town.