No Meatballs?: Big Night

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Big Night (1996)
Directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott
Screening Saturday, 11/12, at Metrograph

Directed by and starring Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, and featuring superb performances by Tony Shalhoub, Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver and Marc Anthony—yes, that Marc Anthony—Big Night was a culinary enthusiast’s sauce-splattered dream years before today’s arguably exaggerated forms and expressions of foodie culture were much of a thing. On that note, ‘arguably exaggerated forms and expressions’ is a variably apropos statement with regard to nearly every aspect of this deeply funny, sumptuously shot, absolutely touching, at times a bit crushing, all-but-edible cinematic feast of a comedy-drama—because its many modes of cultural exaggeration might even be considered humorously understated, and because it also features plenty of wonderful arguments. A number of these arguments are about family. Some of them are about fidelity. Several others are about adhering to traditions and principles.

But of course, most of the movie’s greatest spats, much like the narrative overall, are simply about food. The main characters, Primo and Secondo—played marvelously by Shalhoub and Tucci, respectively, and whose names can also be understood as ‘first course’ and ‘second course’ in Italian—are brothers from Abruzzo whose greatest ambition is to successfully convince the resolutely spaghetti-and-meatball sorts of diners who come to their recently established Jersey shore restaurant, Paradise, that real Italian food is an utterly different thing from what they know, and invariably better. Not only does this lead to many disputes—between Primo and Secondo, between them and their customers, between the customers and their own palates, and between the brothers and their competitor over at Pascal’s—it also culminates in the extensive preparation and even more extensive serving of a grandiose meal encompassing more courses than you might generally consume in a week, and featuring a most impressive VIP dish if not also a certain VIP guest. You don’t need to be an aficionado of Italian cinema to take delight in nearly every moment of this delectable film, but if you are, you might deeply appreciate its felicitous merging of neorealismo with commedia all’italiana—and you too might wonder if it’s set in the 1950s thanks to that very cinematic mescolanza.

Have some sort of snack before seeing this meal of a movie, because it will certainly make you hungry. Which is to say, avoid seeing Big Night with a full tummy, for if there’s anything you’ll undoubtedly want to do once it’s over, it’s go eat, or go cook, or both. What’s more, you will never, ever forget the ‘lesson’ on lasagna bolognese. And you will never, ever forget the timpano. And you will never, ever forget the airs of calm and conciliatory grace that can be conveyed in the preparation of an omelette.

The screening of Big Night on November 12th is part of the series Food-on-Film: A Weekend With Alton Brown. Showtime and ticket information here.

(Image courtesy Metrograph.)

Paul D’Agostino is @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

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