There are few things that I anticipate more than getting The New Yorker each week and, when it was the “Food and Drink” Issue (September 6, 2021), I found myself reading, tasting and luxuriating all at once. This is “An Archival Issue” that cleverly reprinted exceptional articles from years past within its usual categories. “The Current Cinema” feature (September 23, 1996), titled “Feast and Famine” is a review by Terrence Rafferty of Big Night, one of my all-time favorite films.
Big Night (1996), directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci appears to be one of the many “Food Films” that have graced the big screen, from the iconic Babbette’s Feast (1987) to Julie and Julia (2009), all the way to The Lunchbox (2013), another favorite of mine. Rafferty’s review explores in great length the two protagonists’ acting style, Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub, as Primo and Secondo, the two brothers who run Paradise, a small Italian restaurant at the Jersey Shore in the 1950s. This reviewer sees “The party scene as a fitting climax to the movie’s patient accumulation of savory and blissfully pointless delights.” This far I can agree, but if Mr. Rafferty had been a student in one of my film classes, I would have given him a big R (Re-write). How do I dare take down a New Yorker critic? Please bear with me and I’ll explain.
Not only does his review fail to mention the memorable sound-track with the original motion picture theme by Gary DeMichele and notable songs by Rosemary Clooney and Louis Prima among others, but it misses its theme completely. Big Night is much more than a food film; it is above all, an immigration story.
The real film’s climax is the denouement when Secondo cooks a simple omelet for Primo, who has decided to leave the United States and is going back to Italy that very morning. The long, slow, elaborate party scene contrasts profoundly with the simple, fast, goodbye breakfast. I remember seeing Big Night for the first time in the darkened theater and crying unconsolably during this sequence. Obviously, moved to tears thinking of the day when my older brother left for Madrid unexpectedly. After that my family never lived together as a family again. Many Americans tend to think that everyone wants to come and live in the States, but often it isn’t that way at all. Immigration breaks up families and creates big craters among those who stay in the foreign country and those who can’t come or go back as the Big Night brothers and my own sibling.
Since I have to make a research project of everything, I found The New York Times 1996 review of the film by Janet Maslin. At least she emphasizes the supporting roles of Isabella Rossellini, Ian Holm and Minnie Driver, although she puts the action in New York while it takes place in New Jersey. It’s ironic to see how Stanley Tucci, without hair now, has become a chef on a CNN series, in a similar foodie role, speaking basically the same few words in Italian as he did in Big Night twenty-five years ago. Another irony of times gone by is that a then unknown Marc Anthony played a minor role as the busboy before he became the Latin salsa sensation and Jennifer Lopez’s husband (and ex-husband). How is that for a time twist?