Big Night: The foodie film that’s so much more


The Chestnut Hill Film Group's spring 2024 season closes out with a screening of Big Night (1996) at Woodmere Art Museum on Tuesday, May 14.

An unassuming masterclass in cinema, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s Big Night is at first blush a culinary drama, albeit one that has inspired scores of films in this subgenre and – if Mario Batali who has seen the film more than 40 times is to be believed – changed the face of independent restaurants in America. It begins as a slice-of-life film, following two Calabrian immigrant brothers through preparations for a night that could make or break their struggling Italian restaurant, Paradise. 

Like an onion, however, Big Night’s exquisite layers begin to reveal themselves as the movie progresses, and audiences are left to wonder, “Is this a classic David vs. Goliath set-up; an exploration of the unbreakable bonds of brotherhood; a meditation on the pitfalls of the American Dream; or a commentary on artistic integrity?” 

The answer to all of the above is “yes.” 

Set in the 1950s on the Jersey Shore, Big Night follows Tony Shalhoub’s Primo (the chef) and Tucci’s Secondo (the maitre d’ and waiter) as they embark on one last-ditch effort to save Paradise and their own American Dream. Unfortunately, their incompatible outlooks prevent them from getting the very thing they want most. Primo’s perfectionism and unwillingness to sacrifice his craft to accommodate American tastes – there is a hilarious moment when he’s enraged by a request for risotto with a side of spaghetti and meatballs – risks driving away their only customers. Secondo, on the other hand, sees the possibilities his adoptive homeland presents and is willing to sacrifice perhaps too much to save the restaurant, going so far as to ask their chief competitor, Pascal (Ian Holm) for a loan. But just as all seems lost, the brothers are miraculously presented with a chance to turn everything around. A celebrity will be dining at Paradise, and his patronage they believe – like that of the best Instagram influencer – is all they need to bring in diners. 

Things, as they say, do not go to plan, but to reveal more would be to spoil the fun of enjoying it yourself.

Perfectly complementing Tucci and Shalhoub are a pitch-perfect supporting cast, including Scott, Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, and Allison Janney.

Beyond the plot and performances, Big Night is a triumph of filmmaking. Its outstanding mood-setting use of music, from jazz to traditional and popular Italian music, is punctuated by equally effective stretches of silence. This is especially so in the final scene in which Secondo prepares an omelet. Over five minutes long, with nearly no dialogue, and shot with a single stationary camera, it nevertheless manages to exude dramatic tension and poignancy. Whether we are admiring the beautiful set and cinematography or imagining the taste, aroma, or texture of the onscreen delicacies, Big Night is a feast for all the senses.

Big Night (107 minutes) will screen at 7 p.m. on May 14 at Woodmere Art Museum (9201 Germantown Avenue). The screening is free, but donations are greatly appreciated.