The year 1996 was a huge one for unheralded indie movies, and one of the best of all was Big Night, the movie co-directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, which came out in late September that year, 25 years ago this week.
Big Night was a story about the American immigrant experience, about authenticity in culture and food, and about brotherly bonds. And it illustrated all of that with some of the most mouth-watering food of any movie ever.
The film was the story of two brothers. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci.) Immigrants from Italy, they’re running a high-quality traditional Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey.
it illustrated all of that with some of the most mouth-watering food of any movie ever
Primo is the chef, very much tied to old-world customs, while Secondo is the businessman of the group, in love with the promise of America but struggling with the details of how to make it work. This extends to their romantic lives; Primo has a sweet crush on a local florist (Allison Janney), while Secondo is juggling two women, his long-suffering girlfriend Minnie Driver and his rival’s wife, Gabriella ― played by Isabella Rossellini.
Because the local populace’s palate isn’t up to their standards, the restaurant is failing.
Across the street from them is another Italian restaurant, one operated by Pascal (Ian Holm), which is considerably more successful despite having less authentic, Americanized food ― call it a 1950s forerunner of The Olive Garden. The snobbish Primo even denounces Pascal’s food as “the rape of cuisine”:
Big Night may be set in the 1950s, but its plot is very much animated by 1990s Gen X notions about selling out, as the brothers must choose whether to accept a job with Pascal.
The two brothers soon take up Pascal on his offer to have his friend, the jazz singer Louis Prima, appear at the restaurant, with the promise that his appearance and endorsement will spread word of mouth and drum up business. This leads the brothers to sink all their time, effort, and money into preparing for that “big night.”
There are cooking montages, and plenty of close-ups of food, including the famous Timpano:
It ends badly, and with lots of uncertainty. But the movie itself ends beautifully, with its famous final scene in which, the morning after a knock-down fight on the beach between the brothers, Secondo wordlessly cooking for nearly five minutes, before Primo joins his brother at the table:
Scott and Tucci, both veteran actors, teamed up to direct Big Night, which Tucci co-wrote with Joseph Tropiano. Shalhoub, unlike Tucci, is not of Italian descent (he’s Lebanese-American), although he’s played numerous ethnicities throughout his career, including the Jewish father on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
While Big Night earned nearly universal acclaim, including Sundance awards and great reviews, neither Scott nor Tucci ever directed another movie together again. Nearly a quarter-century later, though, Tucci would create and star in a well-received CNN travel show called Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy, which also featured plenty of sumptuous Italian food, some of it rather obscure to those who know Italian food from American restaurants.
Searching For Italy wasn’t the only thing on TV this year that recalled Big Night. The Showtime series Billions, possibly ahead of Big Night‘s 25th anniversary, included a homage to the frittata scene in a recent episode, with Paul Giamatti silently cooking breakfast for several minutes. The scene baffled some viewers unfamiliar with Big Night but was very much appreciated by the movie’s fans.