Big Night (Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

What they really want to do is direct. Tom Hanks, Steve Buscemi, Matthew Broderick, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Frakes: there are more actors directing their first films this season than you can whack upside the head with the stick you decided not to merely shake at them. Worrisome, to be sure, but I must admit that the first one out of the gate, Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott's Big Night, is encouraging. Wildly overpraised, it's nonetheless a fine, funny addition to the burgeoning Culinary genre (Babette's Feast, Tampopo, Eat Drink Man Woman), and well worth seeing if only because it provides meaty lead roles to terrific, underutilized actors like Tucci and the remarkable Tony Shalhoub (the cab driver in Quick Change; Geisler in Barton Fink; I hear he's also on Wings, which I've never seen). As a wry, gentle, sweet-natured comedy, Big Night is first-rate; it's only when it tries to tackle Serious Issues that it goes astray. Tucci and co-writer Joseph Tropiano obviously intend their film to function as a metaphor for the neverending war between art and commerce, but their exploration of the issue, while entertaining, is disappointingly shallow, relying as it does upon the stereotypes of the uncompromising perfectionist (Shalhoub's Primo) and the accommodating, money-hungry philistine (Pascal, played with palpable enthusiasm by Ian Holm, whose Italian accent needs some work), with Secondo (Tucci) caught uneasily in the middle. The emotional climax of the film's eponymous event, which takes place on a beach, is equally unsatisfying, an obligatory and perfunctory setup for the picture's exquisite final shot (a shot that clearly demonstrates upon which side of the Art v. Commerce fence the filmmakers reside). But when it isn't grasping for significance -- when it just quietly observes a group of talented performers strutting their stuff, or tantalizes you with shots of dishes (my god, that timpano!) that make you wish you could leap onscreen like Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo -- Big Night is irresistible. That reminds me: eat beforehand.