La Dolce Indie

Big Night

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Somebody to Love

area theaters, starts Friday


          "TO EAT GOOD food is to be close to God," one character says in Big Night, an indie entrée which follows the struggles of two Italian immigrant brothers to keep their New Jersey ristorante from foreclosure. Like Babette's Feast or Tampopo, this is a reverent work of culinary cinema: Supporting characters include a stuffed capon, an epic timpano, and a risotto dish rendered in the colors of the Italian flag. Big Night also serves as a meditation on commercial food- and art-making. Albeit set in the late '50s, it expresses solidarity with mom and pop operations under siege from the likes of Blockbuster, SuperAmerica, and Tony Roma's. This message takes some twists and turns over the course of two hours, but it's telling that, in the wake of rave reviews at Sundance, the filmmakers chose the relatively lean distributor Samuel Goldwyn over one of the Hollywood heavies--in exchange for final cut.

          Big Night's impassioned restaurateurs are chef Primo Pilaggi (Tony Shalhoub) and his manager brother, Secondo (Stanley Tucci). Presiding over the modestly functional Paradise, they offer radicchio and arugula even though their few customers clearly prefer spaghetti and meatballs. One uncultivated couple appears shocked at the sight of risotto on their table. Where are the shrimp and scallops? And doesn't it come with a side of spaghetti? Across the street, philistines like these line up nightly for a table at Pascal's, an overpriced and undernourished "Italian grotto" run by its namesake (Ian Holm), whose recipe is literally, "Give the people what they want." That includes red and white-checkered tablecloths and lounge-singer renditions of "O Sole Mio." For reasons that are ambiguous at best, Pascal alerts the brothers to a local visit by Louis Prima, a famous big-band musician, and suggests that courting the star could result in some good buzz for the flailing Paradise. So the Pilaggis spend their last dime to prepare an ostentatious banquet, although Primo remains skeptical of advice from a man who practices "the rape of cuisine" on a regular basis.

          The battle between art and commerce is personified by the bickering two brothers--one being of the Old World, the other in awe of the American Dream. The younger Secondo is the producer-showman: He's not opposed to sacrificing an adventurous menu for a little profit, and he can't surrender his unrealistic desire to own a brand new Cadillac. Appearances are important to Secondo. He has only one suit, but it's a fine one, and he takes fastidious care before the start of each evening to arrange the tables and ashtrays just so. Primo, on the other hand, is the stubborn auteur, taking pride in his lavish creations without regard to public taste. When Secondo suggests taking risotto off the menu, Primo sarcastically offers to replace it with hot dogs, a surefire draw. Big Night is consistently witty, but it also makes clear that more than the Paradise is at stake. It's the survival of the little guy over the big businessman, the culture of integrity over crass pizzazz.

          Combining the siblings' strengths, this uncompromising crowdpleaser was co-directed by Tucci (who also co-scripted) and his friend, the actor Campbell Scott; interviews suggest that Tucci, unlike his character, was the obsessive artist of the two, while Scott was more levelheaded, focusing on the performances. The finished product comes out less cinematic than theatrical, to its benefit: The uncommon use of wide-angle long-takes harkens back to comedies of the early sound era, and helps accentuate the actors' precisely measured movements. (Marc Anthony, as the brothers' taciturn assistant, gives a brilliant and nearly silent performance.) Not counting some swift cutting in the "big night" sequence, the directors limit their money shots to a few caustically swanky images of the Pascal clientele--which serve as effective jabs at American style, cinematic and otherwise. If Big Night seems to run a little long, that's part of its refreshingly European preference for savoring each individual course.

          Tucci doesn't fare nearly as well in Alexandre Rockwell's Somebody to Love, playing the small part of a lecherous agent who propositions a wanna-be actress (Rosie Perez) moonlighting as a "taxi dancer" in an East LA watering hole. Perez lends undue charm to a lead role modeled on Giuletta Masina's prostitute character from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria--just one of the filmmaker's countless displays of self-indulgence. Rockwell, you may recall, perpetrated the worst quarter of Four Rooms, which is no small distinction. This pseudo-screwball comedy with an ultraviolent finale boasts cameos by Harvey Keitel (who talks about "sucking dick"), Sam Fuller (as a cigar-chomping director), and Steve Buscemi (as a transvestite who looks remarkably like Illeana Douglas). With this sort of pedigree, Somebody to Love is probably one more thing to blame on Quentin Tarantino.

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