When I prepare to write a movie review, one of the first things I do is point my browser at IMDb.com. When I went to the site and looked up Big Night, the user comment that showed up was eerily similar to a general ‘angle’ I was considering working.
So strange was this event to me, that I am going to share the relevant portion with you.
“When the British film magazine Sight & Sound had one of their periodic times of asking critics to list what they thought were the best films ever made, there was a book which collected articles by several of them, one of whom said that if you were the type of person who didn’t tear up at THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S, he didn’t want to know you. I try to avoid that philosophy, but if I endorsed it, BIG NIGHT would be that type of film for me, a litmus test.”
This is the opening paragraph of the review Mr. Gallagher contributed to that website.
I’m not sure about the seriousness of the conviction expressed by the person endorsing The Bells of St. Mary’s (though it’s certainly a good film), but the philosophy… the litmus test, is (generally) an idea I wanted to convey in my review of this film.
There are certain movies that you use to test other people, to varying degrees. I suppose, to some degree, we use most every movie to get some sort of idea how much we ‘mesh’ with other people’s ideals, attitudes, interests, or what have you. Most movies (hopefully) do not carry a lot of weight in this sort of thing. It looks like the litmus paper might have changed, but who can be sure really? But, when you get to your personal short list of movies, it’s like being in high school science all over again, with that big, glass bottle of .5 molar HCl that your teacher has told you will burn a whole through wood, steel, adamantium, your shoe, the earth, and whatever else it takes to keep these idiot kids who aren’t listening to me anyway from causing another lawsuit.
Now, I don’t know if there are any movies I could really say I wouldn’t want to know someone over, but there are movies that I think… well, that I think tell me something.
I’ve never held it against anyone if they didn’t like My Dinner With Andre (because, let’s face it, that would be a lot of ‘holding against’ or whatever), but when I find someone who did like it I hold it for them, as it were.
My personal theory is that if you didn’t cry during The Last Time I Saw Paris, or A Man and a Woman (if you’re a man of course, if you’re a woman and you didn’t cry I wouldn’t know what to think… you were dead or something) you are simply at some emotional ‘acting macho’ stage, or are otherwise of the opinion that a solid whack with a club is a pretty good opening line.
People who don’t like Sleuth, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Jones, Waking Ned Devine, and Jesus of Montreal confuse me, but I’m sure I confuse them as well, and so the cosmic scales are somehow balanced.
Big Night is, for me, a litmus test kind of movie. Not in a real serious way (like where I would just blink at you for a few seconds if you told me you didn’t like it), but in perhaps a knowing-something-about-you sort of way.
The strangest thing about Big Night, is just how surprised a person would be if they didn’t find out who was responsible for it until after they saw it. It is perhaps more fluid if we look at the ‘mundanes’ of the movie first.
As with many of your better movies, Big Night isn’t really about anything. Sure, it’s about two brothers from Italy who are having some problems making a success of their restaurant in America, and the ‘Big Night’ they hope will turn things around for them, but what’s that really? Not much.
Our two brothers are Primo and Secondo. That’s right, First and Second (or, in a way, Oneth and Twoth)… somehow it doesn’t sound as stupid in Italian. Their names (though unnecessarily easy, yet somehow ‘movie quaint’) cut right to the heart of the movie. Primo, played by Tony Shalhoub is just what his name implies. He is number one. He is the master chef half of our little restauranteur duo. He also lives to our expectations of any variety of ‘artistic genius’. He’s a little quirky. He wants his work to be appreciated. He thinks people should come to the restaurant ‘just for the food’. And, when someone wants a rice dish with a side of a pasta dish (two starches you understand)… well, that’s just the sort of peasant that really makes him throw some pots.
Secondo, played by Stanley Tucci, lives up to his name in just about every conceivable way. I wish I could say he ran the business end of the restaurant game in the way Primo runs the cooking end, but I can’t. He is merely second. He runs the business end, not badly, simply competently, because what else is there? He tries his best to cope with his brother’s insistence on certain things, and serve as sufficient buffer between necessary evil Primo, and necessary evil the customers. Secondo has long lived in the shadow (which may or may not be largely self-created) of his brother, and the general idea of being second has spilled over and hooked onto his entire life.
We come into the game at a point when the restaurant is near collapse. The customers are few and far between, and the competition (scarcely thirty yards down the street) is doing a brisk business. We are, to sum up, at a serious point of desperation. Not long after we enter the lives of our number-named brothers, Secondo is at the bank being told he has until the end of the month to come up with some money, or it’s all over for the American dream.
Before we get too involved, we are introduced to Secondo’s girlfriend, Phyllis. Phyllis, played by Minnie Driver, is very interested in Secondo, and in, let’s say, moving forward with their relationship. Unfortunately, Secondo is, alas, Secondo, and he creates excuses and explanations in order to keep her (and, of course, himself) unfulfilled. Phyllis is portrayed as the ‘chance’ for Secondo. This is rather a subtle feature of the movie (and wonderfully so), but it is clear that Phyllis hovers ever-available, as the realistic opportunity for Secondo to extricate himself from the curse of his name.
We soon move on to the push of the movie, the Big Night. Grasping at straws, Secondo goes to Pascal, the owner of the competition, to ask for a loan. It seems they have become fairly good friends. Pascal declines the offer at an exchange of money, but offers Secondo something else which may be just as beneficial. Pascal knows many celebrities, and he offers to arrange for one of them to dine at Secondo’s place, thus drawing a crowd, and hopefully much future business, and thus we have a Big Night.
The rest of the movie takes us through the many preparations for the Big Night, and (lucky us) the Big Night itself. Among other things, we get to see Primo’s own love interest develop, though as all geniuses (apparently) he is awkward and shy around women. In the end, the relationship between our two brothers goes to boiling point, and then meltdown.
It’s a character interplay, and it’s a masterful one. Nothing (well… perhaps very little) is wasted. Every scene, and every bit of dialogue gives us a bit more of our characters. From the subdued yet glaring scenes (Secondo admires a new Cadillac, showing one of his many unreal attempts to move past his name), to the subdued yet subdued scenes -Phyllis and Pascal’s wife chat privately – both of them are being cheated on in one way or another, one of them doesn’t know, the other doesn’t care.
The final result is that, as one might expect, Primo ‘wins’ and Secondo ‘loses’, but for none of the reasons that haunt Secondo. Primo wins merely because he is simply himself, and taking the good with the bad, he accepts, and he does what he can with what he has. Secondo loses because in constantly trying to escape being Second, he continually evades being Secondo. There is no sense trying to make the best of what he has, because whatever he may have is, by definition, not good enough. He works hard, he worries and aspires constantly, but most of his work serves only to kick the ladder out from under himself.
But, in the end, whatever else may be true, it doesn’t negate the truth that your brother is your brother.
The movie is worth watching for the last scene alone, which is in the neighborhood of five minutes long, and no one says anything. It is also, quite possibly, one of the best scenes ever put on film. The movie is delivered wonderfully. It has some excellent cinematography/direction, a superb example being the shot moving down the table just prior to the Big Night, slowly pulling up to show the brothers, in their best dress, surveying the restaurant’s state of readiness.
We get a feel in this movie similar to Chocolat, but without the edge of semi-unreality. We drift in, we eavesdrop, we try to take something away. Very fly-on-the-wall.
One of the pleasant surprises of the movie is the character Cristiano played by (I was as surprised as anyone) Marc Anthony, largely of singing fame. I am forced, begrudgingly, to give kudos to Marc Anthony for an excellent performance in a role most would overlook completely. It is a supporting character, that actually supports, with maybe ten total lines and a whole lot of time on-screen. Cristiano is the all-around helper at the restaurant, and provides us with a focal point, largely in that we are so tempted to forget he is there.
The other surprise, the one I spoke of earlier, is that the movie is directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, and written by Joseph Tropiano and Stanley Tucci. That’s right, Secondo. Stanley Tucci also co-produced. Okay, it’s not that big a surprise right this second. At this point we also have The Impostors (1998), and Joe Gould’s Secret (2000). But, in 1996, when Big Night was released, it was all new to Tucci, and Campbell Scott wasn’t exactly blowing the doors off anything.
I certainly wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t want to know you if you didn’t like this one, but when I learn that someone does, I get to say, ‘Mmm Hmmm’, and then give a sort of low cackle, and wring my hands. I’m not saying it means anything, makes any sense, or is at all relevant. I’m just saying I get to do it.
Are You Screening?
Here’s the trailer via ReelzChannel