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No Reservations (2007) -vs- Big Night (1996)

Jay AmicarellaThe Smackdown

I’m constantly lamenting the dearth of Romance in American Cinema, especially the lack of a truly sophisticated Romantic Comedy, the kind that MGM, utilizing the talents of Tracy, Hepburn, Grant and others, used to concoct with such apparent ease.  Today’s pretenders offer cruelty as comedy, with the protagonists verbally and physically humiliating each other until the denouement, where, after two hours of sadism that makes the worst moments of my divorce appear gentle, we are supposed to believe they will treat each other like June and Ward, everafter.  2007’s “No Reservations,” thankfully eschews the popular formula, and offers instead a dramedy of romance in a gourmet restaurant setting where the celebration of food and drink is strongly linked to the celebration of Life, the process of grief, and yes, Romance.

Another film where Food, delicious, smell-it-through-the-screen food, earns it’s own acting credit is 1996’s “Big Night”, a low-budget movie that is now a cult favorite, thanks to the inestimable talents of then little-knowns Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub.  In this film, another dramedy, Romance takes a back seat to the study of familial love and loyalty, and the choices we face when pursuing our dreams.

In one corner we have the luscious Catherine Zeta-Jones in an apron, fulfilling a pre-feminist fantasy, in the other, two of our finest character actors, crafting a personal labor of love.  Which will satiate your cinematic hunger, and which will you send back to the kitchen?

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The Challenger

To me, there’s almost nothing better in the theater-going experience than being completely wrong about a movie, and boy, was I wrong about this one!  From the previews, I had “No Reservations” pegged as just another ‘Star Vehicle’, the kind of flick we’ve come to know so very well, that seems to serve no other purpose than to extol the questionable attributes of a particular actor or actress, and promote their career. And, of course, make a lot of money doing it. The typical ‘vehicle’ features the Star in 99.9% of the scenes, and rams down our collective throat their special brand of ‘likability’, i.e., a signature grin or cute/quirky personality, that, after two hours, has us hunting for a belltower rooftop where we can bring total strangers down with a scoped rifle, until the SWAT Team finally puts us out of our misery.

My first preconceived idea about this film, that it was another in a line of unfunny comedy/romances, was laid to rest when I discovered a few minutes past the opening that it is serious at its core.  Catherine Zeta-Jones portrays a brilliant New York chef, who, despite talent, accolades, and her love of good food, is living a life of quiet desperation. Fearing loss, she has written a recipe of personal rules and regulations that are designed to keep the world, and especially suitors, at a distance. But tragedy once again acts as catalyst, and she is suddenly the guardian of her young niece, played by the irresistible Abigail Breslin (“Signs”), whose twofold purpose is to unbend her Aunt, and blithely steal every scene she’s in. At the same time, an equally gifted, but free-spirited male chef arrives, in the form of handsome Aaron Eckhart, to cause Jones to question her value system, and fear for her job, and heart.

The words ‘Broad Comedy’ do not exist in the vocabularies of Director Scott Hicks, or screenwriters Carol Fuchs and Sandra Nettleback, and for that we can be very grateful.  Like the delectable dishes they show us, their film is subtle, and full of charming moments that we are allowed to savor, much like Ridley Scott’s wonderful “A Good Year.”  As in that film, even when “No Reservations’ ” characters are at odds, they still treat each other well, and believably, and there is none of the casual cruelty present in today’s so-called ‘Love Stories.’

Catherine Zeta-Jones is a mega-star who never seems to put a foot wrong, and she makes all the right acting choices here.  Her portrayal of a tight-ass is always delicate and nuanced, never annoying or overbearing . When Zeta-Jones is being cold or controlling, she refuses to cinematically ‘wink’ at the audience, and thus we are spared the heavy-handedness usually associated with  stars afraid their fans “won’t get” that they are really terrific!  Aaron Eckhart, too, is light in his acting touch, and finds just the right tone for a character that, in the wrong hands, could have easily been repellent.

The only flaw that “No Reservations” possesses is its predictability.  Unless you are very young, you know what will happen every step of the way.

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The Defending Champion

Co-director’s Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night” is exactly like a classy restaurant: The word of mouth spreads naturally and slowly, and finally, you’ve got a hit!  Set in the New York of the 1950’s, this is a meticulously crafted treat, like the mouth-watering food it portrays.  Two Italian brothers run their own restaurant, but, in an era when Wop-Stops were just supposed to serve spaghet’ and meat-a-ballsa, the unbending chef/brother (Shalhoub), insists on challenging his few patron’s palates, and brother Tucci’s patience, with expensive, gourmet dishes, that, although authentic Italian, are as foreign to the standard fare as Martian food would be.  As a result,their small establishment is in danger of extinction until a set of circumstances gives them a chance for a “Big Night”, an evening when legendary Italian singer Louis Prima is rumored to visit their restaurant after a performance.  Both brothers know this is their one chance at greatness, and work together to create the ‘perfect meal.’

The creation of this gastronomic masterpiece, and other dishes during the course of the film, will have even the most hardened diet-conscious calorie counter salivating.  And the food is not just present to titillate.  It is used to deftly recall a lost culture where meals were of themselves, events, and  bound families together with their mix of enjoyment and ritual.  A scene where Tucci and Shalhoub simply share an omelette is quietly moving.   And it’s not just the food that gets the loving treatment.  Sets, clothes, and especially period music are all specially chosen to delightfully depict an era and a place that, even if you’re too young or too suburban to have experienced, you’ll still be nostalgic for.

The Scorecard

I think you get the idea that neither of these films will send you running for the TUMS, they are both winners, but, hey, this isn’t an Admiration Society, it’s a Smackdown!, so one film will stand triumphant. One aspect I enjoyed in both films was their authenticity when it came to the depiction of the culinary arts.  Both of these films know food, and the hazards inherent in the preparation of same for the general public. “No Reservations” boasts a pair of very charismatic romantic leads, in a very believably written plot, but, alas, also a very predictably story.  Its subtlety and charm put it leaps and bounds in front of other American Romances, even as you guess each plot turn before it happens.  Catherine Zeta-Jones and company are so enjoyable and just plain good at this sort of thing, they seem to be saying, “Yes, we know you know what’s going to happen. But you won’t care, because you’ll love us, and the WAY we do it!”  And they are right.

“Big Night” is a quiet treat, like eating ice cream in front of the fridge in a dark kitchen, late at night, but maybe a little too quiet.  Few of us remember the late Louis Prima, and a setting so ethnic is by its very nature, limiting.  It is a small drawback that the success of Tony Shalhoub’s cable TV series “Monk” makes his character in “Big Night” seem derivative, when in fact it was the chef Primo, of the film, who was the genisis of Shalhoub’s obsessive/compulsive personality. His performance here is brilliant, and showed the world he could do more than play bit parts on TV sitcoms. Stanley Tucci may be one of the most underrated actors of our generation.  Whether he is portraying a bewigged, closet ballroom dancer in “Dance With Me”, or aping his real-life friend Shalhoub as a guest star on “Monk”, he is always a delight to watch, and “No Reservations,” where he shares acting, directing and writing credits, is one of his best efforts.

The Decision

Of these two tasty treats, which should you enjoy now, and which gets pocketed til later?  All things being equal, and with these two films, they almost are, it comes down to who was chosen as the ‘third star’ of each.  “Big Night”, although it also boasts Isabella Rossellini, Ian Holm, and Minnie Driver among its costars, made the food the main costar of the film.  And as lovingly as the dishes are portrayed, as much as it makes you want to drag race your SUV to the nearest gourmet restaurant, it is still a character with no voice, no expression, and thus, no emotional investment.

“No Reservations”, on the other hand, cannily made Abigail Breslin’s niece character a major part of the story, and, like a spice sprinkled just-so on an important dinner, she makes all the difference. Breslin is amazing, and gamine, touching, real-life amazing, not the standard child actress’ snotty-precocious amazing, and experiencing with her the overwhelming hurt of loss, the shy first crush on a father-figure, and even the simple joys of a plate of spaghetti, make the whole trip to the multiplex worthwhile.  Thus, although it was as tough as choosing between equally exquisite chocolate desserts at a good bistro, it is “No Reservations” that earns the nod to the waiter, and, like one of those decadent concoctions, you’ll want to split it with someone who appreciates fine fare.

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