Minnie Driver has hovered at the edges of fame, never quite an A-lister and only rarely earning the dubious distinction of a movie star with enough power to grace the tabloid covers. She did win a few awards for a British TV series ("The Deep") recently, but really, why even talk about recent projects? Had she done nothing more than her hat trick of films in 1996, she deserves more critical acclaim than she has been given—as Matt Damon's brainiac girlfriend in Good Will Hunting, as John Cusack's saucy spurned girlfriend whom he reunites with as the hit man returning home for a 10-year high school reunion in the comedy Grosse Pointe Black, and finally, in the wonderful Big Night. Driver doesn't play a central function in Big Night, which worries more about two Italian brothers in Baltimore trying to save their restaurant, but she serves as a reality check for the brothers' head-in-the-sky dreams.
Big Night is an intoxicating film-at times, slapstick comedy, other times romantic, but through and through a movie glorifying food. The film was a critical success, but largely, like Driver's career, stayed just at the edges of mainstream success, in part because it was a decade premature, years before celebrity chefs helmed their own TV show, and before every other hipster declared himself a foodie.
Like Water For Chocolate released four years earlier, Big Night hovers on food dishes and celebrates them with the same reverence given to divinity. In the film, two Italian brothers, Primo and Secondo, try to save their restaurant, a revered critical success that attracts few customers. Their plan for redemption is one big night (yes, smartie pants, hence the name) when they will pull out every culinary stop and also invite jazz singer the jaunty Louis Prima (which makes for a soundtrack to rival Buena Vista Social Club.) Course after roasted piglet course is delivered to near-orgasimic acclaim from the few friends who show up for the party; it is the nirvana of all dinner parties.
Big Night also is about relationships, about how food brings together family and friends, and, like good food should do, is instructive about how to live life; As one guest at the fateful dinner declares, "Bite your teeth into the ass of life."
Certainly movies like Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. explore the blubbery underbelly of American's diets, but an equal number of films celebrate what food can and should be when it is its most elegant and purposeful. The slow-moving but spellbinding documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is near sushi-porn. The title sushi master has devoted decades to precision; even his understudy, his fiftysomething son, has spent decades learning to toast the seaweed just so. The restaurant is in a Japanese train station, yet is considered one of the world's best; even with a single roll costing more than most home down payments, there is a months-long waiting list. The film is a submarine window into another world, one which inspires purpose and dedication.
Load up your Netflix queue with Chocolat, Eat Drink Man Woman and the delightfully animated Ratatouille, and put down your sandwich, caveman, and check out one of these foodie films this Bite of Bend week.