Art is made by artists, and artistic integrity, compromise, and exploitation are all things about which artists obsess about in said art. Reality Bites, Mulholland Drive, Josie and the Pussycats, Can You Ever Forgive Me?—cinema, music, and literature have all been championed as purist pursuits. How does that change if, or when, we let someone else dictate what our individuality looks like? When does creativity become flattened into production, and when does art become regulated into content? (I promise, I will not bring up Martin Scorsese again, I promise.)
These (perhaps overly existential) questions might not immediately come to mind when talking about Big Night, a movie about two Italian brothers running a restaurant on the New Jersey shore in the 1950s. Stanley Tucci (who also co-wrote and co-directed) and Tony Shalhoub play numerically named brothers who pour everything they have, literally and figuratively, into their tiny hole in the wall. Their world is small: the women who adore them, the neighbors who befriend them, the fellow Italian immigrants who sympathize with them. They struggle for business, and they struggle in love. They fight with each other, and for each other. “We all should have a lot we don’t have,” Tucci’s Secondo says with both wistfulness and resentment, and Big Night bravely admits that wearing your heart on your sleeve might be a vulnerability instead of an asset.
Instead, Big Night insists that staying true to yourself is simultaneously an impossible way to live and the only way to live, and that kind of rigidity does not allow for a happy ending. It can garner respect and admiration, but also financial ruin. Perhaps there is a dangerous kind of romanticization here, and a rejection of the practicality we might need to survive. But Big Night is unyielding in its commitment to the idea that doing things the right way—with honor, and patience, and attention, and intention—is worth doing. And what the film provides, with bittersweet melancholy, is moments of grace and solidarity between two brothers who are very different in personality and mannerisms, but whose affection for the cuisine of their homeland is only rivaled by their feelings for each other. That’s as pure as Italy’s best extra virgin olive oil. That’s as rare as bucatini. That’s the good stuff.
“If I sacrifice my work, it dies. It’s better that I die.”
When Tucci made Big Night, he was tired of the roles he’d been cast in over a decade or so of work: wise guys, assassins, and baddies, some of which tapped into the worst stereotypes and cliches of how others viewed his Italian-American identity. As he told The Washington Post’s Sharon Waxman in 1998 while promoting his second directorial effort The Imposters, “It was very frustrating. Most of the time it was just perpetuating the stereotype of the Italian as a gangster guinea.” Does Big Night indulge in some stereotypes of its own? Maybe. The Italian men are hot-headed, the women sensual, the food traditional, the Americans uncultured. But Big Night approaches all this from a place of openness, with the warmth of an invitation—like an ajar restaurant door, beckoning people inside.
That restaurant is Paradise, a slightly shabby but neatly decorated restaurant on a quiet street on the New Jersey shore, run by brothers Primo (Shalhoub), a gifted, perfectionist chef, and Secondo (Tucci), the charming restaurant manager. The kitchen is small, with mismatched shelving, hanging pots and pans, and weighty wooden prep tables; the dining room is small, with crisp white linens, gifted paintings on the wall, and a satisfyingly stocked bar. It’s a short walk to the sand and the water out the back, and a short walk to the restaurant’s bustling competitor, Pascal’s, out the front. Cinematographer Ken Kelsch roams around Pascal’s, panning across the dining room packed with Americans listening to lounge singers, digging into spaghetti and meatballs, and being entertained by owner Pascal’s (Ian Holm) foul-mouthed glad handing. And every night, only a couple dozen steps away, Paradise sits empty.
When the restaurant’s few diners critique the food for not being the Americanized dishes they expect, Primo threatens to fight them, Secondo smooths over disagreements, waiter Cristiano (Marc Anthony) hovers between the brothers, and Paradise loses money. It’s been like this for two years, and the bank is no longer extending the brothers’ loan. But Secondo, so used to hiding the realities of life from the more sensitive Primo, can’t accept that their American dream could be over so soon. So he reaches out to Pascal for help, assuming that a fellow Italian immigrant would be an ally. While Pascal refuses to lend the brothers any money, he offers something else: What if Pascal’s friend, popular Italian-American jazz musician Louis Prima, and his band were to eat at Paradise instead?
“It’s the land of fucking opportunity,” Pascal says of America with a wide—bordering on leering—grin, and his treatment of the brothers is almost covetous. He praises Secondo for how good the man looks with his slicked-back hair, his broad shoulders, and his nicely fitted suit; he keeps trying to bite him. He praises Primo for his development of flavors, for his understanding of the guiding principles of Italian cuisine, and for how religiously he sticks to the family recipes the brothers brought over from Italy; he does not, however, try to bite Primo. Pascal displays more interest, and avarice, toward the brothers than he does toward his own wife, the gorgeous, bored Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), and Tucci and co-director Campbell Scott offer a clue about Pascal when they shoot him in his office, a lamp blocking his face, obliterating his expressions. Who is Pascal, past a vague outline of a man? What does he stand for, or believe in? Not much.
The brothers trust him, and that’s one mistake. Interpersonal relationships are not their strength. Secondo keeps pushing off proposing to his girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver), while Primo can barely work up the nerve to speak to his crush, florist Ann (Allison Janney). In this fantastic ensemble, everyone is at the top of their game. Tucci and Driver are all pent-up desire and high-strung energy, bouncing their bodies against each other in longing in the back of Secondo’s car and in frustration in the restaurant kitchen, while Shalhoub and Janney are gentler, more tentative, and quirkier, like when Primo climbs into a glass display to examine Ann’s flowers. (Not a euphemism.)
Outside of the kitchen or the restaurant, the brothers are a little bit messy and a little bit lost. But their pride—they won’t let go of that. Tucci’s line delivery and demeanor exude crisp indignation when Secondo says “I speak English” to a bank manager refusing to extend their credit. “Do you know what goes on in that man’s restaurant every night? Rape! Rape! The rape of cuisine!” Primo yells when Secondo talks about the hubbub at Pascal’s, Shalhoub’s stiff body language mirroring his unwavering opinions about food. Perhaps the brothers are inflexible, and perhaps they are melodramatic. But if we lose our dignity, what do we have? Who are we? Or, more importantly: Who aren’t we?
“Tell me. What, exactly, are you?”
On the one hand, the few days that Big Night chronicles could be taken, at their face, as a portrait of life’s lusty appetites. There is a lot of pining, and a lot of kissing, and a lot of smoking, and a lot of drinking, and—of course!—a lot of eating. For The New York Times, Claudia Rowe called Big Night a “food-orgy film.” In The Washington Post, Rita Kempley mentioned the film’s “Romanesque banquet.” And to be sure, the film’s penultimate act uses intertitles to break up the luscious, practically lascivious, array of courses that comprise the titular night’s final meal: “La Zuppa,” the soup; “I Primi,” the first; “I Secondi,” the second; “I Dolci,” the sweet. Chicken soup; roast fish and vegetables; a suckling pig crisp and crackling; tomatoes raw, roasted, sauteed, sauced. Platter after platter, dish after dish, course after course. (No wonder Tucci opened a restaurant a few years later, or has since written two cookbooks and a food-focused memoir.)
But the winningness of that final meal is not just its bounty, or its quantity. It is in the togetherness it provides for the people who gather at Paradise’s table, and who join Primo, Secondo, and Cristiano, and who understand a little bit more about who those men are by eating their food. The most beautiful scenes in Big Night are the silent ones, the ones that capture the dance the three men do in the kitchen—routines informed by practice, experience, and time. Primo and Secondo moving between the prep tables and the gas range, stirring pots, shaking pans, lifting lids, tasting sauces, adjusting as they go, communicating with each other by glances and looks and intuition. (Tucci simultaneously tossing two pans of onions and grapes, one in each hand, serves as an introduction to the thirst-inspiring confidence of his recent Instagram cocktail videos.) The dialogue-less joy at the table as the diners are served: the smiles inspired by the brothers’ timpano pasta, hands thrown in the air and fingers pinched together in delight, sighs of satisfied fullness from each diner. When the meal wraps up at 3 a.m.—with Louis Prima never having arrived—the restaurant looks like a war zone, and the brothers’ friends, neighbors, and diners all look like shell-shocked survivors. “It was the best, ever,” they agree, and they’ll never experience the likes of it again.
Because the brothers were lied to about Prima (Pascal’s “I am a businessman. I am anything I need to be at any time” puts him alongside Eastern Promises’s Semyon and The Wire’s the Greek as Very Bad Capitalists), and the brothers are out of money, and the brothers’ American dream is over. As they wrestle and fight each other on the beach behind their now-failed restaurant, their traded accusations of betrayal and selfishness seem like a permanent severing. After crossing over from the if to the when of losing our dignity, who are we? Who are Primo and Secondo now?
It seems like whoever they’ll be, they’ll do it alone—until Big Night ends with a scene so simple, so humane, and so beautiful that it underscores the sharing quality of food as its most important quality. Not its complexity, nor its gluttony, but its capability for spiritual sustenance. A few hours after the brothers’ fight, after the sun has barely risen in the sky, Secondo walks back to the restaurant to see Cristiano asleep on the kitchen’s prep table. Primo is nowhere to be found. Efficiently, methodically, Secondo cracks three eggs into a bowl. He seasons them, and he whisks them together. When Cristiano reaches to help, Secondo rebuffs him: “I’ll do it.” He pours olive oil into a frying pan, he turns the range on, he pours the eggs in, he aggressively stirs them around and lets them set, he gathers two plates and two sets of cutlery, he sets the table—all of this happening in real time as the camera barely moves—he flips the omelet, he takes bread from the basket that Cristiano has retrieved, he puts a slice of bread on each plate, he puts an egg on each plate, he leaves one egg in the pan, and he and Cristiano begin to eat. And then, as the two are midbite, Primo appears. Another plate is fetched. The remaining egg and remaining bread are put on it. Cristiano steps out, leaving the brothers alone. And in silence, and in apology, and in camaraderie, Secondo rubs Primo’s arm, and Primo puts his arm around Secondo’s shoulders. They hold each other while they eat the simplest meal Big Night offers, and it matters because they do it together. Whatever happens next, happens next. But in that moment, Big Night’s emphasis on tradition, integrity, and love is as authentic as that timpano recipe. Some things matter more than money, and some paradises are found in failure.