Empty calories

Whenever food acts as a central component in a movie, it occupies a peculiar role--probably because, since eating is something everyone can relate to, it's a reliable way to establish common ground with the audience even though everyone's experience with it differs. Movie food delivers gratification without calories, even when a particular dish might be unfamiliar; someone need not to have eaten a white chocolate creme brulee to revel in its satiny texture, its glistening milkiness. That's when using our imaginations gets fun.

Food has been successfully employed as an idiom of unspoken communication for years, usually as a way of drawing corollaries between it and sex. Tom Jones elevated a delirious, uncouth repast into an extravaganza of finger-licking bawdiness. The deli scene from When Harry Met Sally gives its sturdiest kick to the funny bone not at the moment of Meg Ryan's orgasmic rant, but in the elderly customer's deadpan followup remark to the waitress: "I'll have what she's having." More ambitious films have constructed their major themes almost entirely around the iconography of the dinner table: Like Water for Chocolate, Babette's Feast, Diner, Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?

The low-key period comedy Big Night hopes to number itself among their deliciously witty company. But while the film is airy and romantic, there's no payoff, no moment where the food evolves from meal to meaning. Food may be the film's raison d'etre, but it never achieves the sense of contemplative symbolism that it needs to go beyond being merely pretty--you might as well thumb through a color cookbook. Big Night lacks the planning of a truly great meal: It goes from appetizer straight to dessert and, seemingly inadvertently, skips the entree entirely.

Because food is sustaining and necessary, pleasurable and luxuriant--and because individual reactions to each repast are senselessly subjective--there is a price to be paid for recklessly indulging in it in film: Food is never meant to be a mere thing, an item representing itself. The power of food in cinema lies in its use as metaphor; food must stand for something greater than the salt and rice and water and flour that hold it together. Otherwise, we all might as well go straight home after the restaurant and save a few bucks on the baby sitter.

In Babette's Feast, the free-spirited housekeeper Babette serves her pious masters in stern silence for years, only to prepare, on the eve of her retirement, a lavish banquet the likes of which no one has ever seen. Babette's meal is both her gift to her employers and her revenge: The hard-bitten austerity of the Danish countryside may be temporarily vanquished by her gorgeous meal, but what lingers well after the last dish has been cleaned and put away is her employers' sense of regret.They had suppressed life's joys and left them untouched for years, only to discover their own folly when it was too late.

Ironically, although an important dinner forms the nexus of the plot in Big Night, it functions merely to advance it; the metaphors needed to give the film an air of substance don't take root. There's no appreciable subtext when Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef who believes in the artistry of cooking, slowly drives his restaurant into the ground because of his pigheadedness. When a customer orders risotto and spaghetti (two starches!) he simply refuses to serve them together. (The amusing "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld last season used similar ingredients with a slight variation to the plot.) Primo, by insisting upon purity in his work, has become a culinary genius, but an insufferable egomaniac and a failed businessman; that's true whenever a touchy-feely artiste enters the picture.

It naturally follows that there be a grounding influence to bring out Primo's dedication in sharp relief--as if we couldn't tell he was obsessive-compulsive without having it spelled out for us. In Big Night, that's Primo's younger brother, Secondo (Stanley Tucci), who makes a last-ditch effort to save the place by attracting jazz great Louis Prima (the expectation being that his recommendation will rescue the struggling bistro). The film can't generate a reaction more passionate than a feeling of wan pleasantness. Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed the movie, seems to have a grasp--however vague on a secondary level--of the film, but like Secondo, he's charmingly inarticulate about expressing it.

Still, the film contains many interesting, complex characters, and although all the actors do fine work, two stand out. Ian Holm delivers a carnivorously enthusiastic performance as Pascal, a rival restaurateur. Pascal is spirited, magnanimous, and crass, like some Roman-accented leprechaun. He tosses off the phrases "fucking" this and "fucking" that with the casual furor of a recent student of the colloquialisms of the English language, one desperate to demonstrate his command of its vernacular without concern for its propriety. He's ferociously in control of the mood whenever he's around. Isabella Rossellini, as Pascal's wife, Gabriella, leaves an impression in a small role. She's a drop-dead beauty; you can imagine rows of skid marks along any road where she regularly takes a walk. In Blue Velvet as well as here, she need only put on an ordinary black dress and, with a slight change in posture, make you certain she's really wearing a silk slip. Gabriella, like most of Rossellini's characters, is the embodiment of womanhood in its sultriest incarnation--a combination of carnality, whiskey, and moonlight. If Holm can be described as a force of nature, Rossellini is correctly termed a force of sex.

Holm and Rossellini, in fact, do almost more harm than good, because they are constant reminders that each course of dinner can be likened to a personality archetype: the hot spicy soup; the dependable, good-for-you salad; the wicked temptation of rum cake a la mode. But Big Night loses its way, and early on. The film is too long for what it tries to do, and ultimately too bland in what it accomplishes. You might see the food in its glorious presentation, but if you don't feel the warm glow of the oven, the whole affair might just as well have been catered.

Big Night. Samuel Goldwyn/Rysher Entertainment. Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini. Written by Stanley Tucci and Joe Tropiano. Directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott. Now showing.


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