Big Night (1996)
To thine own self be true. Yes, I’m still on a Hamlet kick, but the Bard does give us many life lessons, even though we’d rather remove our own gall bladders with oyster forks when we first read him. It’s not Shakespeare’s fault, rather, the missed opportunities English teachers have in supplementing Big Willie’s plays with films that present his themes in a more palatable context for modern society. To be true to one’s self has, in our modern sensibilities, become an imperative to live without compromising one’s values and beliefs. This is presented in the hidden gem, Big Night.
Primo and Secondo are two brothers from Italy who own and operate an Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. Primo (played by a pre-Monk Tony Shalhoub) is the hot-tempered but brilliant chef who refuses to waste his talent on making the "Americanized" Italian food that customers expect. Secondo (played by writer/director Stanley Tucci) manages the restaurant and has bought into the possibilities presented by the American Dream. Despite Primo's brilliant food and Secondo's efforts, the restaurant is failing.
The sub plot sees Secondo unable to commit to girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver), and he has been sleeping with Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), the wife of restaurant competitor Pascal (Ian Holm). His self-named restaurant is a great success despite, or perhaps due to, the mediocre food served. Even Primo reveals his softer side in a developing romance with Ann (Allison Janney).
Pascal offers a solution; he will call his friend Louis Prima, a big-time jazz musician, to play a special benefit in hopes of revitalizing the brothers’ restaurant. Primo and Secondo go all in on this “big night”, and spend the remains of their savings to prepare a feast of a lifetime. Helping them out is their waiter, Cristiano (an early role for a pre- ex-Mr. J-Lo Marc Anthony).
The film closes with an uninterrupted, nearly wordless long take – a scene not used nearly enough in our world of car chases, gunfights, explosions, and gratuitous nudity. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy all of those elements; but in a world of instant and immediate gratification, it is rather refreshing to watch and enjoy a scene that in silence is more telling that even the best lines of dialogue. Quite often there is elegance in stillness.
While not a commercial success, Big Night received much critical acclaim both domestically and overseas. Unfortunately we know that critical and commercial success aren’t always synonymous, but this is a film worth watching. It begs the question; “How far does one go to remain true to oneself?” Without sounding judgmental, we all compromise our values in one way or another rather often and for various reasons. Is it heroic to remain steadfast in our principles and resist compromise, and at what expense? Perhaps it depends on what the issue is and how important it is to the individual.