A Four-Star Meal 

Big Night is a feast

Big Night is a feast

Big Night, the wonderful debut feature by actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, is the last thing you’d expect to see this year at the movies: a tribute to unyielding standards of artistry. It takes place in the late 1950s at the Paradise, a small Italian restaurant in New Jersey run by two immigrant brothers, the Pilaggis. Primo, the chef, has a culinary gift handed down from the gods. He specializes in obscure dishes that represent centuries of tradition, rigor, and craft—an entire way of life. For that reason, he won’t sully his kettles with bastardized Italian-American cooking, which he bemoans as “the rape of cuisine.” He’d rather leave the meatballs and the checkered tablecloths to the boisterous vulgarian Pascal (Ian Holm), whose thriving eatery down the street thumbs its nose at the Paradise.

Principle is fine, but it ain’t paying the Paradise’s bills—something Primo’s brother, Secondo, knows only too well. Primo’s refusal to Spaghetti-O the menu has driven away casual customers, and Secondo, the Paradise’s manager, learns the restaurant cannot survive unless a miracle occurs. And then, a miracle occurs. The expansive Pascal—who alone understands the value of the brothers’ art—makes Secondo a deal. Pascal will send his close personal friend, the singer Louis Prima, then at the height of his popularity, to the Paradise for one special meal. If the meal is a success, Prima’s seal of approval will save the restaurant. If it fails, Primo and Secondo go to work for Pascal, and the Paradise is history.

What emerges is a deeply satisfying human comedy about the value of values—not the toothless bromides mouthed by demagogues, but the standards of beauty and nobility that govern our hopes, our lives, and our dealings with others. Primo, the chef, wants to educate customers; Secondo, the manager, just wants customers, even if it means suppressing his brother’s gift. In a great early scene, Secondo tries to convince two exasperated customers—maybe his only customers—why Primo’s lovingly crafted risotto doesn’t come slathered with tomato sauce and meatballs. Out front, he politely ex-plains the dish doesn’t need extra pasta or sauce; in the kitchen, he begs his apoplectic brother to scare up the damned meatballs. As the big night approaches, their running argument comes to represent a larger clash of cultures and ideals outside the restaurant. In the movie’s grand scheme, it is Secondo who will receive an education.

And so will we. With the characters, the conflicts, and the consequences defined, Big Night lays out the preparations for the big night in meticulous detail. We see the selection of fresh greens and the purchasing of discount booze; in a fascinating sequence, we follow the preparation of a timpano, a drum-shaped delicacy that’s constructed as slowly and perilously as a high-rise. We’re used to seeing a murder or a heist planned this painstakingly on film, but not a work of art—and certainly not a meal. (Crime is the only art form that interests a lot of moviemakers these days, perhaps because it’s the only one they’re qualified to judge.)

The meal is the movie’s main course, and it’s filmed as a continuous burst of high spirits, warm colors, zesty music, and dishes that draw gasps of appreciation from eaters and viewers alike. (One friend called the movie “the best meal I’ve ever had in Nashville.”) Just as sumptuous, however, are the movie’s many side dishes, its array of juicy performances and superbly detailed characters. As the cab driver on TV’s Wings, Tony Shalhoub has stolen scenes for years with awkward gallantry, but as Primo he’s astounding. With his big liquid eyes, woolly-worm mustache, and shy downward glances, Shalhoub transforms inexpressible grand passion into brilliant comic style, especially in his scenes with the delightful Allison Janney as the florist he secretly loves. His wordless scenes cooking in the kitchen with Secondo, played by Stanley Tucci—who not only codirected but cowrote the script with Joseph Tropiano—are so nuanced, so precise in their gestures of unspoken communication, that they alone reward a second viewing. Pascal’s explosive, calculating crudeness is a new color in Ian Holm’s already varied palette, and he has a great foil in Isabella Rossellini as Gabriella, his luscious, caustic mistress.

Big Night is specific about the act of creation in ways that recent artist biographies such as Basquiat and I Shot Andy Warhol are not. It’s easier, of course, to show food preparation than painting: With food there are guidelines that must be followed strictly, and it’s much easier to assess the results. But Big Night captures the spark and excitement of inspiration—and the hard work that brings it to fruition—that’s missing from most movies about artists. The movie closes with a final scene of exquisite simplicity; I won’t spoil it with further description, except to say that it expresses perfectly the movie’s vision of food as a calling, as sustenance, and as a gift from the creator to the consumer. Big Night was made outside the major-studio mainstream by actors and filmmakers who wanted to see it filmed the right way, without interference or compromise. The chefs deserve our highest compliments.—Jim Ridley

The Lesser of Two Evils

There have been three great documentaries about politics in the past four years. First came D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, a portrait of two tenacious idealists, James Carville and George Stephanopolous, trying to reinvent Democratic campaigning. Then, earlier this year, PBS’s P.O.V. series presented Taking on the Kennedys, a dispiriting profile of a good-natured Republican doctor who gets so beaten up in his congressional campaign against the more moneyed Patrick Kennedy that he finally resorts to scorched-earth negative advertising. Now there’s A Perfect Candidate, a revelatory look at the 1994 Virginia Senate race between incumbent Democrat Chuck Robb—a man accused of cheating on his wife with a Playboy bunny—and Republican challenger Oliver North, a man convicted of lying to Congress.

There’s nothing special or groundbreaking about the way A Perfect Candidate is filmed. It simply does what a good documentary is supposed to do: seek out interesting people in revealing situations, and assemble what the camera records to tell a story. On one side is North, reticent when he’s not in public, nodding at whatever his handlers tell him, and pausing during his speeches to get choked-up on cue. Although he seems to believe what he’s saying, he punches his pitch like a traveling salesman. On the other side is Robb, jaded by years of campaigning, rushing through his campaign stops and blowing past his constituents with a wave and a “Hi, I’m Chuck Robb! I just want to shake your hand!” Eventually, we realize he means just what he says: He never stops to listen to his fellow citizens, and a handshake is all the contact he wants.

More important than the competitors, though, are the two fascinating figures A Perfect Candidate discovers behind the scenes. There’s Mark Goodin, a disgraced former leader of the Republican National Committee, who heads up North’s campaign with gusto and candor. With a drink in one hand, a hamburger in the other, and a steady stream of profanities in between, he’s a puckish warrior, less concerned with the goals of his “family values” candidate than he is about redeeming himself in the eyes of the Republican bigwigs (who nonetheless shun North).

The other major figure is Washington Post reporter Don Baker, a frustrated veteran newsman who offers welcome perspective on Robb’s career, which has been a letdown to him, and on North’s grassroots appeal, which leads Baker to admit that if the people of Virginia really want North, perhaps he can at least provide the commonwealth with strong leadership. Baker wonders aloud about the role of the press in degrading the quality of political discourse, as he and his colleagues faithfully report the negative message of the day.

Through the intertwining stories of these four men, directors R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor capture an important time—just two years ago—when politics got personal, not just for the candidates but for the voters. The men and their messages mattered less than that they filled a slot around which the public could rally. A Perfect Candidate is full of virtually identical-looking political supporters from opposite sides shouting vitriol at each other and complaining about some mysterious “they” that wants to practice some vague indecency at the expense of “the people.” The bitterness of the 1994 elections across the country may have turned off the electorate, judging by the comparatively mild tone of this year’s presidential campaigns; but the hurt of having one’s politics judged as a moral lapse still lingers for many. (There are still more “North ’94” and “North? Never!” bumper stickers in Virginia than either Clinton or Dole stickers.)

A Perfect Candidate doesn’t merely document the recent past, though: In three key scenes near the end, it offers a vision of the future. The first comes in the form of a sermon about tolerance of sin, made by a preacher to his congregation. As Chuck Robb looks on uncomfortably, the pastor urges his flock to vote, explaining that the only perfect candidate would be Jesus Christ. The second telling moment comes as Goodin walks away from his candidate’s concession speech—which is really just a slightly rewritten version of his acceptance speech—and confesses that he was too soft on Robb. Next time, he says, he’ll start negative and stay negative.

Finally, there’s Don Baker on election day, admitting that for one day during every campaign, he doffs his reporter’s clothes and enters the voting booth to make his private choice. What makes A Perfect Candidate a relevant and ultimately optimistic film is that it suggests Baker’s act is truly heroic. Despite all the voices shouting that to vote for so-and-so is to condemn the country—at a time when would-be leaders point fingers at each other rather than toward the future—Baker takes his own lead and lets his own small voice be heard. A Perfect Candidate follows that lead. It records the hype and sees past it all at once.—Noel Murray

A Perfect Candidate shows Tuesday and Wednesday at the Sarratt Cinema.

Tied Up Neatly

Are they the new Joel and Ethan Coen? Not yet, but the Wachowski brothers, Larry and Andy, have more than fraternal DNA going for them in the comparison. Bound, their first feature, has Blood Simple’s gee-whiz technique and labyrinthine plotting, and, more important, a liberating adherence to rules of its own making.

The action begins when Corky, a lesbian ex-con, starts working in the apartment next to Violet (Jennifer Tilly), the husky-voiced moll of a mid-level gangster. Tilly’s smooth sexpot soon seduces Corky, played by Gina Gershon (Showgirls). Together, they plot to steal the $2 million dollars that Violet’s man, Caesar (Joe Pantoliano, covered in flop sweat), is holding for the mob bigwigs. The setup of this story is nothing special, but its slow unraveling is a kick. Violet’s plan depends on Caesar acting a certain way, and when he defies expectations, the lovers have to start improvising.

The script, however, never improvises. It sticks by the contract it makes with the viewer in the first hour: that these characters will have to play the motivations and resources they’ve been dealt. There is no deus ex machina, no Keyser Soze playing the ticket buyers for dupes, no characters keeping secrets from the audience. Violet’s plans are simply pitted against the power of chance to undo them. Bound’s plot hangs together as few recent thrillers can boast, but not for its own sake. We come away with the moments of revelation that plot makes possible—like discovering, simultaneously with the characters, that thin apartment walls transmit sounds in two directions. In films told in flashback, chance mishaps have fate’s crushing weight; these real-time shocks are refreshingly light.

To be frank, Bound is entirely disposable. It’s an excuse for thrill-park gasps and rich, jewel-toned cinematography by Bill Pope. The close-ups, angles, rapid moves, and slow-motion artistry are all here—but they’re used as throwaway eye candy. The whole movie is a tease, from Tilly and Gershon coupling in soft focus to Pantoliano hiding bloodstains with an area rug. But it’s such a deliciously impudent tease that we enjoy it as much as the filmmakers do. Their joy in the narrative’s clean line, their excitement in seeing spilled paint as a blank cinematic canvas, bursts from the screen.

Bound has promise. But before we wrap the Wachowskis in the Coens’ mantle, remember that in Miller’s Crossing and Fargo the Coens applied their delight in technique and genre conventions to stories with meaning. Here’s hoping the Wachowskis follow their lead.—Donna Bowman


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