I am just preparing a meal (don’t laugh, it’s not just Colin who can cook, you know? ) for the return of the Divine C as I write this; it’s in the oven as we speak, so I have a brief interlude to tell you about a perfectly charming little film that’s all about the joys (and tribulations) of the fine art of gastronomy, Big Night (1996), by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci.
Seriously, I only have good memories associated with this – it was one of the first films that I watched in a ‘professional’ capacity (and what say you keep your smart comments to yourself again, eh? ), at the original incarnation of the City Screen in York, from where I hail.
A very successful little art-house cinema in its own right, City Screen chose the night of their screening to announce that they had been bought out, which was very good news, have no fear – the cinema itself has since changed locations (and name, it’s now City Screen Picturehouse) slightly in York, but is still the best picture house in town, which shows an excellent range of films, from modern mainstream to avant-garde antiques.
Anyway, on their own ‘big night’, City Screen showed the film, then laid on a quite majestic bun fight – in my long, long experience of free nosh for journos, this is still one of the finest I have ever enjoyed. And it was thus entirely in keeping with the film itself which, not unlike Gabriel Axel’s masterly Babette’s Feast (1987), is largely devoted to the singular joy of good grub, and manages to prove that the fine art of nosebag can be as much of an orgasm for the eyes as it is for the taste-buds. Put it this way, after I had watched the film, I had a more-than reasonable appetite.
Anyway, back to Big Night – it’s written by Tucci and Joseph Tropiano, and concerns the efforts of two brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) (the infinitely exacting and fastidious old-school Italian chef) and Secondo (Tucci) (front-of-house old-school Italian charmer) to save their failing Italian restaurant, Paradise. It’s not that their food or service isn’t great, but that popular demand for Italian cuisine in 1950s USA has not risen above the mediocre (but very successful) spaghetti and meatballs fare that is offered by their sly competitor Pascal (Ian Holm), at his eponymously titled nearby restaurant. Keen to have the brothers working for him, he nevertheless offers them a chance to get their eatery back on the map, with a promise to arrange a visit to Paradise for celebrity jazz singer Louis Prima when he is next in town, in order to revitalize their public appeal. Although Primo is becoming increasingly keen on the idea of returning to Rome to help with his uncle’s restaurant, Secondo, who is still enamoured of the possibilities of life in America and wants to keep his own restaurant, persuades his brother to prepare his masterpiece for the ‘big night’. Fun times are coming.
A proper ensemble cast serves up a beautifully warm treat – the obvious frustration of Secondo with his brother’s nit-picking and unwillingness to sign up to the American Dream provide the lion’s share of the laughs, but the delight of the film lies in the unbelievably beautiful meal that Primo eventually serves up. Never has the screen groaned so much with the sense of utter devotion to food that the film’s last act represents, yet the coda, which involves nothing more than the preparation and serving of an omelette, is wonderfully moving. Just make sure you have something good to eat to hand when you watch this, and, if you’ll excuse me, my oven’s bell has just rung.
107 mins. In English and Italian.