Big Night

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Although snugly at home in the burgeoning genre of the food film (Babette's Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, etc.), this is much more food for thought than food for tummy, an "issues" movie about the artist versus the businessman in the American marketplace. The metaphor for this takes the amusing form of two immigrant Italian brothers in an uneasy partnership in a failing Jersey Shore restaurant in the late Fifties. Only the culinary details are dated; the aesthetic issues remain as timely as ever. The older brother, Primo (Tony Shalhoub), is an Old World chef of the highest and stiffest standards, creating seafood risotto, among other delicacies, for a spaghetti-and-meatballs populace. Pearls before swine. The younger, Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who co-directed with fellow actor Campbell Scott, who in turn assumes a small role as a lollipop-sucking Cadillac salesman), is the maitre d' and bookkeeper who has to face the public and the bank. The artist of the pair is happy to accept a painting as payment from an appreciative customer; the businessman is left to pull off the last-gasp promotional scheme of hosting a banquet for Louis Prima and his band. "Famous guy," he explains to his head-in-the-clouds brother. "Famous?" echoes that other. "Is he good?" Sympathies are clearly, if not altogether evenly, divided. The moviemakers do not have the chutzpah, or the Italian equivalent, to pass themselves off as foursquare on the side of art and the artist. They see the problem. They seek a compromise. The romantic triangle, or rather quadrangle, in which Secondo is involved, may be trite; the treachery on the part of a rival restaurateur from across the street (Primo: "The man should be in prison for the food he serves") may be transparent and predictable; the brotherly tussle on the beach by way of a dramatic climax may be loud and lowbrow; but these may be necessities, after all. Practicalities, at worst. Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Holm, Allison Janney. (1996) — Duncan Shepherd

Rated R


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