The relationship between cinema and good food is almost a cliche.
Check that. It is a cliche.
One movie is described as “a feast for the eyes,” which is a turn of phrase that should be avoided at all costs. Another features “delicious imagery,” whatever that means.
Then there are movies in which the food allusion is literal. The alternative film “Big Night,” which is available on video this week (see capsule review below), is a case in point.
Set in an Italian restaurant in New Jersey, the film explores the complexities of family relations. But the specifics of those relations are set in a struggling-if-excellent restaurant that serves up everything from risotto to cannelloni to roast pig - the result of which is enough to send you, the viewer, scampering off to the nearest Italian eatery.
There are many movies that use food in one way or another, sometimes as a metaphor, other times as a central theme in and of itself.
Following is a partial list of such movies, films that leave you nourished in soul but famished in body.
“Babette’s Feast” (1987): This Oscar-winning foreign film is a Danish delight. Based on an Isak Dinesen short story, which originally was published in the Ladies Home Journal, the plot culminates in a dinner prepared for a group of sober Lutherans by a French emigre (Stephane Audran). As each sumptuous plate is presented, the joy comes from watching the expressions on the face of the sole diner who knows just how magnificent the food be devoured really is.
“Like Water for Chocolate” (1993): Based on the novel by Mexican writer Laura Esquivel, this Alfonso Arau film uses food not merely as a substitute for love - but as a gastronomic expression of it. That’s how you get dishes that can literally cause people to wail with anguish, fall desperately in love or feel the kind of passion that sets bathhouses on fire.
“Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994): Family negotiations between a Chinese widower and his three daughters typically take place over Sunday dinner, a feast that the gourmet prepares with the same kind of tyranny that he exerts over his children. As the movie progresses, the characters evolve and grow, and the food - if anything - looks even more delicious as the minutes roll past.
“Tampopo” (1986): You need to love noodles to fully appreciate this Japanese film, which actually owes as much to Sergio Leone as it does to Juzo Itami - one of Japan’s most popular filmmakers. The plot involves a Clint Eastwood-type truck driver who helps a woman make her noodle shop into something that serves food-as-art. Both funny and intelligent, it’s also a celebration of Japanese cooking.
“Tom Jones” (1963): Hardly a celebration of food, this Tony Richardson adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel boasts one of the most shamelessly erotic eating scenes ever filmed. Sucking the flesh off the bones of a Rock Cornish game hen never has been portrayed as so lascivious a delight.
Vonnegutt on film
The other major release this week is Keith Gordon’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegutt Jr.’s novel “Mother Night.” In contrast to some novelists who never seem to get a break from Hollywood, Vonnegutt has fared quite well.
George Roy Hill directed the difficult, unstuck-in-time novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1972) and achieved a kind of quality that makes the film something of an undiscovered classic. “Who Am I This Time” (1982) is a funny short film directed by Jonathan Demme, starring Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken, and is based on a story from Vonnegutt’s collection “Welcome to the Monkey House.”
The only exception is 1983’s “Slapstick of Another Kind,” the Steven Paul-directed would-be comedy that stars Jerry lewis and Madeline Kahn.
In Hollywood, three out of four is a pretty terrific average.
The week’s releases:
Mother Night *** 1/2
Nick Nolte stars as Howard Campbell Jr., a man accused of war crimes who - though secretly - was actually working as a double agent. Keith Gordon directed this adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegutt Jr. novel, which studies how perceptions of reality affect what we all see as ultimate truths. A thought-provoking effort, buoyed by what may be Nolte’s best performance, it also benefits from the presences of Sheryl Lee (“Twin Peaks”) and Alan Arkin. Rated R
Big Night ***
In the tradition of “Babette’s Feast,” this little independent film tells the story of two brothers, Italian immigrants, who struggle to make a go of their Jersey Shore restaurant. One (Stanley Tucci) is the consummate businessman, while the other (Tony Shalhoub) is a culinary artist. The mix doesn’t always work, and so bankruptcy is always at hand. Then comes the night that the great Louis Prima is supposed to show, and the brothers prepare a feast that they see as a go-for-broke last chance at success.
Co-directed by Tucci and Campbell Scott (who has an engaging turn as a Cadillac salesman), “Big Night” benefits from the acting talents of Tucci and Shalhoub in particular but also from the presences of Isabella Rossellini, Ian Holm and Minnie Driver.
Buoyed by these performances, and a depiction of food that even now sets my stomach agrowl, “Big Night” ends up being a delightful look at the complex nature of human existence. Rated R.
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