I found Big Night during lockdown in the dark recesses of Netflix. On the surface, it is unassuming. The poster is a simple affair with a spread of characters spaced out in a pleasing fashion. Some big names join the cast, most notably Stanley Tucci and Isabella Rossellini, but there are no Brad Pitts here. And yet I selected this film on that particular Covid-infested day. It is my favourite film.
Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films
The film follows brothers Primo (Tony Shaloub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), Italian immigrants who have set up a humble, traditional Italian restaurant in America. When Secondo discovers the restaurant is soon to be bankrupt, local big wig Pascal (Ian Holm) steps in to help, claiming that he is friends with jazz musician Louis Primer. In honour of the celebrity, the brothers host a party at their restaurant, staking everything they own on this one big night.
On the surface, Big Night is a comfort film. I do not mean this as a detriment. Firstly, the film is abundant with sumptuous shots of mouth-watering Italian food. Risottos organised in pastel colours, stretchy, steaming pasta and the almighty Timpano. If you aren’t familiar with what Timpano is, imagine a combination of all the best things in life encased in flaky pastry. This film almost forces you into salivating.
Eating these dishes is a Wes Anderson style ensemble of quirky side characters. Similar to the opening act of a heist movie, this ‘crew’ is assembled in order to populate the party, which dominates the final two acts. A painter with an empty wallet is a regular customer, paying the brothers with his art rather than much needed cash. Across town is the bashful flower shop owner Ann (Allison Janney) whom Primo has a schoolboy crush on. The show stealer, however, is Campbell Scott as Bob the car salesman. His character is nothing more than his occupation, leading to many unexpected, and hilarious, sales pitches. There are more than these three, including a gaggle of unnamed attendees of the parties who you can’t help but love. A rendition of the song Mambo Italiano from a drunken attendee is an unforgettable joy.
Aside from the comedic comfort of this film, there is a genuine emotional pull. Primo and Secondo are constantly at each other’s throats with the former struggling with adapting to American society. Italy has a hold on Primo, one which gains stronger the more that America rejects him. Secondo, on the other hand, has intense anger problems. This puts a strain on his relationship with Phyllis (Minnie Driver), who he is cheating on with the seductive Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini). Secondo regularly explodes in fits of rage; he may be our protagonist but whether he is likeable is disputable. The comfort and conflict in Big Night are symbiotic. Balance is not easily achievable in film, but Big Night does so with finesse.
The most famous part of the film is it’s ending, named by Vulture as the fourth best movie ending in film history. It’s one of those rare moments when a film is genuinely touching with no sense of artifice left. I think that sums it up really. Artifice is inherent to film creation so to find a film which feels honest is a rare treat. This treat is utterly delicious.
Edited by Lydia Leung, Film & TV Head Editor