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When the Kitchen Goes Quiet, 'Big Night' Comes into Focus

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This weekend, the Metrograph theater in New York City’s Lower East Side will be screening "Food-on-Film: A Weekend with Alton Brown," featuring six of Food52 friend Alton Brown’s favorite food films. They’re all classics, and readily available. We’ll be running short essays throughout the week on each one. Check out the previous entries here.

Photo by Samuel Goldwyn Films/Photofest and Metrograph

Stanley Tucci tends to be taken for granted—think of how convincingly he canvassed two characters as disparate as Julia Child’s husband and the serial killer next door in the span of 2009. Or consider Big Night, his casual 1996 foray into directing a feature film with Campbell Scott.

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The film was a Sundance baby that fermented into a classic over twenty years, lauded in most corners for its droll look into a fraternal business partnership between Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci), brothers who run an Italian restaurant on the Jersey shore in the 1950s. They've come straight from Abruzzo to the East Coast with the intent of sustaining a business around their native food, in a time when "authentic" Italian cuisine was anathema to most casual diners in America. In Big Night, the kitchen becomes a site of dramatic paroxysm—the brothers are prone to collapsing in fits and furies, especially Primo, who often feels he must martyr his culinary gifts for the blunt, tasteless palates of America.

How to Make a Timpano, Big Night-Style
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How to Make a Timpano, Big Night-Style

Given the public distaste for cooking like theirs, the brothers are thus reduced to doing anything to keep their business alive. Desperation draws them to a sleazy warthog of a competitor (Ian Holm), who promises to coax Italian-American singer Louis Prima to the restaurant—his celebrity, they believe, will undoubtedly resuscitate this dying business. The brothers agree to this as a last-ditch rehabilitation effort, preparing a gallant meal accordingly.

Big Night is about getting up in the morning after you’ve gotten your ass kicked and making breakfast,” Alton Brown offers in his liner notes for the movie. He cites the film's final scene, taciturn and matter-of-fact in the way it addresses the disappointment of a promise gone unfulfilled, and it's the one that most of the film's ardent fans gravitate toward two decades on.

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But what comes before? There's an analog to this final scene that comes about an hour into the film that I'm drawn to even more—when the two brothers, along with their waiter Cristiano (a pre-"You Sang to Me" Marc Anthony), quietly prepare the dinner hours before the event. It’s a rare long shot that reduces the kitchen to a scatterplot—sauces boiling atop stoves, produce waiting to be sliced—and Primo and Secondo begin cooking with wearied, self-serious precision. The gravity of what's riding on this night comes into more rigorous focus.

This scene unfolds with wordless efficiency. Big Night is concerned with the deadening inertia and tedium involved in Primo and Secondo's enterprise; theirs is a labor—bodily, mental—that becomes abstracted when one sits on the other side of the kitchen. Big Night's stock has only increased in the past twenty years; to some restauranteurs, its charge is even prophetic. But at its core, this is a film propelled by the dictum that life must go on even in the most taxing of circumstances. And Secondo is a role Tucci was born to play, the man who must make his labor look easy.

What scene sticks out most from Big Night? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: stanley tucci, metrograph, food on film, food and film, alton brown, big night, timpano