A scene from the movie BIG NIGHT. Secondo, played by Stanley Tucci, has a humorous encounter with a couple of diners while he grates fresh Parmesan cheese.
A scene near the opening of Big Night. 

I’ll divide this movie review into a spoiler-free section (up first) and a spoiled section.

Spoiler-free

Big Night is a movie about a couple things. Above all, it’s a movie about two things: tradition and fidelity, fidelity to homeland, to food, and to family. As such, one of the main characters exemplifies fidelity; the other, not so much.

The two main characters, by the way, are brothers who have come from Italy and set up a restaurant in New Jersey. I know, of all depressing places. (Sorry, Jersey residents! My mother is from New Jersey, so I’m not a hater! Just saying.)

In some ways, the movie’s about the American dream. It’s also about selling out. Give that a little chew… because it’s also a movie about food. It’s just saturated in authentic Italian cuisine that threatens to leap off the screen in all its deliciousness. All right, that might be wishful thinking. I haven’t seen many YouTube chefs attempt to make the film’s set piece, il timpano, but here’s one from Binging with Babish. It seems that Tasty has a couple versions as well.

In the end, even if Big Night is a sadder movie than it is uplifting, it’s also hilarious by turns. I promise you a good laugh, regardless of whether or not you end up liking the final product. To me, it’s also a beautiful movie in the fact that I’m not sure even the most masterful author could write a book version better than the movie. This movie screams MOVIE. It was made as a movie and meant as movie; it exemplifies, for me, what it means for a piece of art to be a movie. For that reason alone, in a day and age when many movies are attached to other movies in complicated series and when those that aren’t are often based on books, I consider Big Night worth watching. Here it is, ready for you.

If you’re still not convinced, feel free to keep reading, and I’ll lay it bare for you. Here are the spoils.

Spoiled

At its heart, Big Night is a profoundly sad movie. Primo, the elder of the two brothers whom the movie revolves around, is an inspired chef — perhaps the best chef anyone’s ever met — but he won’t compromise, operating under laws of cooking and eating that he holds close to his heart. For instance, one shouldn’t eat two starches together — which is why, in an early and laugh-inspiring scene, his younger brother Secondo is forced to argue as Primo’s proxy with a customer who wants both risotto and spaghetti. Moreover, Primo wants to create the dishes he made back in Italy, as he made them in Italy, for an American restaurant-going crowd who are more interested in the restaurant across the way, Pascal’s, which serves things like steak and spaghetti and meatballs. Primo views Pascal, the eponymous owner, as a sellout.

In some ways, Secondo seems to have his life more in order than Primo, who strikes the viewer as something of a stick-in-the-mud — he’s stuck in the past, in the Old World. Secondo, on the other hand, deals with the restaurant’s struggling financial situation, has a car, and has a girlfriend, Phyllis. On the surface, he’s on his way to good American success. But the restaurant’s failing, and even as he struggles to keep it afloat — asking Pascal for a loan, which is promised not in the form of money but in that of a special guest, Louis Prima — the facade of his act crumbles when it’s revealed he’s been having an affair with Pascal’s younger wife, Gabriella.

Gabriella, in turn, knows the truth — that Louis Prima is not coming to the “big night” the brothers have prepared. That Pascal lied and never made the call, in an attempt to bust the brothers’ restaurant and get them to work in his own. She hides this from Secondo, but eventually reveals it to Primo in one of the final scenes, after she and Secondo have been outed.

In a scene not long before, she and a drunken Phyllis have a conversation about men. It’s an electrifying scene, one that makes this movie as much about these seemingly sidenote women as it does about the men. In the end, all of the characters have been misled by something, be it greed or close-mindedness or simple deceit.

In the penultimate scene, Primo buries his face in the sand on the beach, screaming, “This place is eating us alive!” in Italian. By the end, after Secondo prepares an omelette in a breathless, wordless morning scene — and the brothers reunite after their big night gone south — the future of their restaurant and their disparate lives seems clear. Primo will return to Italy to work in his uncle’s restaurant in Rome; Secondo is going to work for Pascal.

Others aren’t so sure that the ending offers that kind of resolution. But in a movie that’s about the open-ended pursuit of the American dream, in which there are many solutions and perhaps never any “selling out,” this type of ending — one that draws the strands of the story together without tying them, per se — fits perfectly. Watch this movie now. It might make you believe that people can struggle without dying for it, that there’s a way through for everyone, but it just might depend on the individual. That there’s no such thing as quitting, even if you’re trading one endeavor for another, and no such thing as selling out when it comes to survival.

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