Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Forty-Eight


#48 — Big Night (Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, 1996)
I have a very distinct memory about driving home from my viewing of Big Night. I saw it at the Hilldale Theater, a two-screen cinema in Madison, Wisconsin that predominantly booked art house fare. I’d just begun a relationship with a fantastic, forthright, deeply intelligent person who was a incisive examiner of films in her own right, but we were living in different cities so most jaunts to the cinema were undertaken separately. As I cruised along towards my home on East Washington Avenue, still filled with delight over what I’d just seen, I realized that I desperately wished she was there to talk to, to break down together everything that was wonderful about the directorial collaboration between Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott. I wanted to share it with her.

I bring this up not to be indulge in sappiness, but because it seems especially pertinent to the film in question. One of the great pleasures of Big Night is the way it captures the pure enjoyment of sharing something wonderful with others, with tapping into something that you yourself find special and seeing the same rapturous appreciation in others’ eyes. Set in the 1950s, the film follows two Italian brothers running a small, tasteful restaurant that is on the brink of failure, in part due to the uncompromising temperament of one of the siblings, a masterful chef who creates challenging culinary masterpieces in a culture where most patrons want something recognizable on the plate. They feel they have one chance left to save the business: a grand feast served to a packed house of invited guests, with the famed Italian-American singer Louis Prima attending as a guest of honor. As the night proceeds, the brothers unveil one masterpiece after another until their diners are left blissfully stuffed, with one even reduced to tears over all the comparatively unsatisfactory meals she’d endured before this grand evening. The film captures the satisfaction of great artistry, and the sensation of having it duly appreciated.

It’s may also be the most wondrous evocation of the allure of food to flicker upon a movie screen. There are plentiful examples of movies that revel in the depiction of food, presenting butter-soaked delicacies and luscious sauces with the sort of radiance usually reserved for the most glorious starlets. This description suits Tucci and Campbell’s approach, but they give equal attention the delicate work in the kitchen that produces the wonders, at times taking such care to show the work of the chefs that it becomes something like a stove top procedural. There is a fulsome respect for the magic that takes place in that hallowed room, where a couple eggs, a little oil, a pan and some heat can provide sustenance, both physical and emotional. A well-prepared meal, even a simple one, can even bridge divides, correct rifts, heal emotional wounds. Plainly asserted, that notion may seem a little implausible. In the reflected warmth of Big Night is seems so logical that it’s practically self-evident.

By the way, given all the time I devote to typing about movies in this electronic space, you might conclude that my compulsion to share the movie going experience reported above was a good omen for the durability of that new relationship. You’d be right.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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