Little seems to aware that our beloved screen-chameleon Stanley Tucci has a low-profile director career, with five features under his belt to this day, which all started with BIG NIGHT, a food-porn interspersed with fraternal clashes, co-directed with his high-school friend Campbell Scott.
Tucci is a formidable triple-threat in the picture, apart from taking credit in the script department, he plays the central character Secondo (“second” in Italian), an Italian immigrant in New Jersey in the 1950s, he opens a restaurant called Paradise with hisperfectionist elder brother Primo (for sure, it means“first” in Italian, played byShalhoub), who is a chief par excellence but cannot deign himself to accommodate the eclectic American taste, for him, it is the“rape” of the love of his life. Therefore, the business is gloomy, as the manager, Secondo is equipped with street smart and intent to sink his teeth into making good in the promise land. The titular“big night” is game-changer vouchsafed by their benevolent competitor Pascal (Holm), who runs an eponymous restaurant nearby with success (first you cook what the customers want, and after that you can teach them what to eat!). Financially strapped, the brothers go for broke and organize a lavish banquet to entertain the popular singer Louis Prima as their last resort, but, there is a catch, is Pascal’s deed really altruistic, does he have an axe to grind?
Although both Tucci and Shalhoub’s strained American accents cannot escape a born-and-raised Italian ear (not this reviewer anyhow), the performances are barnstorming: Tucci turns head in his no-holds-barred incarnation of someone who is at once aspirant and frustrated, self-deceiving and delectably sympathetic (albeit his bed-hopping habit and an eye-rolling treatment of being caught red-handed near the end);Shalhoub, on the other hand, constrains himself to evince a more ambivalent timber of Primo, whose presence is often waffling between being stubbornly selfish (claiming he is unable to make a sacrifice, but the truth is, he just doesn’t want to do something degrading his bloated ego, it is never about Italian gastronomy, he is too afraid to be a fish out of water) and so ineptly reticent (with his capacity of English lexicon wavering implausibly in between different scenes, and a bonhomous Allison Janney is criminally underutilized as his possible love interest); but the true unsung hero in the movie isIan Holm, who gives a fantastically Janus-faced impersonation peppered with either effervescence or stolidness. Unfortunately, the film fails to pass theBechdel test, yet between Minnie Driver’s lackadaisical girlfriend and Isabella Rossellini’s sultry lover, Secondo's two-timing subplot cannot outstrip the consanguineous squabble and affinity.
By and large, BIG NIGHT is an effusive ethnographic study of Italians in America garnished with a profusion of music, gusto and humor, also gets to the bottom of the soi-disant American Dream with a bitter-sweet introspection, although with its closing long-take brazening out the life-goes-on truism, the ending seems to make a virtue out of necessity, why not leave us something more concrete to chew over after the rolling credits, or are the filmmakers simply running out of ideas to consummate a less self-aware culmination? The jury is out there.
referential point: Joan Micklin Silver’s HESTER STREET (1975, 7.6/10); Gabriel Axel’s BABETTE’S FEAST (1987, 8.0/10).