Movies about food work best when the food is not a metaphor, but is actually food. Does this make Julie and Julia a better film than Chocolat? Sort of--if only because the former makes you want to cook, while the latter makes you want to--well, I'm not sure. Feed dainties to Johnny Depp? Assert independence from petty provincialism? OK; but a movie about food should be a movie about food--and Big Night is certainly that, as it observes food so closely it approaches the fascination of Food Network in its unflagging insistence that one should not simply watch, but do. Cook, that is.
And Big Night goes one delicious step farther: It explore the relationship between food and family, the ways in which food can reflect the harmonies and breakups, the deep-rooted affections and deep-seated resentments of family life. But it never makes food a metaphor; instead, food remains the catalyst, the vehicle for the brothers' love and grudges, their misguided dreams and opportunities. And the relationships extend to their friends and customers, their rivals and hoped-for lovers who crowd in on this "big night" when all their hopes ride on the perfect Italian mega-meal.
And, like the Timpano itself, that big drum of southern Italian ecstasy,* the movie adds one more layer: the setting, Atlantic City in the '50s, when everyone ended up on the boardwalk, both blue and white collars taking a look at the Atlantic Ocean, the way it held out its hand to show you the piers and restaurants waiting. More could have been made of that milieu, but the hints of this world outside the restaurant--captured by the elusive non-presence of Louis Prima and His Orchestra--are enough.
And of course, one more layer, the cast. Shouldn't Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub make more movies together, and shouldn't Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini, and Minnie Driver step into those other movies to offer more promises and veiled threats? The brothers in particular are so carefully shaped, so perfect together--even in conflict--that one almost could imagine this movie without a restaurant, without eating. Almost.
*And here is the recipe for Big Night's signature dish, straight from Stanley Tucci's family kitchen: Mangia!