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By Bruce VanWyngarden, Cory Dugan

Big Night ****
(1996, directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci)

Big Night abounds with ironies, insights, and humor, but at its heart it is a story about innocence lost. Primo and Segundo are two young Italian immigrant brothers trying to make it in the restaurant business in 1950s America. The country is enamored with big-finned Cadillacs, big busty women in satiny dresses, and big-band music played loud. It is a bad time for a restaurant serving subtle cuisine three decades ahead of its time.

Primo, the chef, is a temperamental artist with a passion for risotto, timpani, and suckling pig in an America that thinks of Italian food as spaghetti and meatballs. As the movie begins, Segundo, the business-manager brother, is given 30 days by his banker to turn the restaurant around. Seeing the success that his older rival Pascal is having with a middle-of-the-road, red-checked-tablecloth restaurant nearby, Segundo asks for help. Pascal says he'll call his friend, the famous musician Louis Prima, and ask him to bring his band to the brothers' restaurant. There will be newspaper coverage, and Louis Prima will be served a meal he will never forget. The word will spread, and the restaurant will be saved.

Around this simple premise, Big Night spins romance, betrayal, lust and, always, endearing humor. Tony Shalhoub, as Primo the artist/chef, gives a wonderful, nuanced performance, a far cry from his taxi-driver role on the television show Wings. Ian Holm, as the pompous Pascal, and codirector Campbell Scott, as a shallow Cadillac salesman, carry their roles to perfection. And Isabella Rossellini is, well, Isabella Rossellini, and every movie needs an Isabella Rossellini.

You can interpret Big Night as a metaphor for innocence lost, or an indictment of the corrupting influence of American business values. Or you can just watch it for the sheer pleasure of it. Big Night is a sumptuous feast of a movie, a delight for the senses that never disappoints. -- Bruce VanWyngarden

Basquiat ****
(1996, written and directed by Julian Schnabel)

The critic Robert Hughes once said that the painter Julian Schnabel "is a most eclectic artist; what you see in his paintings is what he was looking at last." If the same holds true for the filmmaker Julian Schnabel, he must have been looking at MTV, Gus Van Sant, and Wagnerian opera when he made Basquiat, his celluloid fable based on the life of fellow '80s art star Jean-Michel Basquiat. Voice-over, montage, hallucinatory images, overblown symbolism, slow-motion, stop-action, and an obtrusive soundtrack that ranges from Tom Waits to Gorecki are just a few of the ingredients former cook Schnabel tosses into the stew.

The cast is an independent-film dream ensemble. Jeffrey Wright is excellent in the title role, wandering aimlessly between naivete and opportunism; his facial expressions run the limited gamut from blank to stoned, but anything more would be overacting. David Bowie does a sharp, graceful turn as Andy Warhol, ably playing the icon as an effeminate oddity. Dennis Hopper portrays the Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger as a gently befuddled Daddy Warbucks. Gary Oldman plays the fictional Albert Milo, a superstar painter based on Schnabel himself, with smarmy chic and a benevolence not usually associated with egomaniacs. Claire Forlani, as Basquiat's fictionalized girlfriend Gina, is allowed the only role with any emotional range (and audience sympathy); she plays it with style and charm.

There is an element of sarcastic and simplistic caricature in some of the characters, notably Mary Boone (Parker Posey, too WASPish and frisky, is miscast) and Annina Nosei (gamely played by Elina Lowensohn); these women art dealers, who were in fact more responsible for the '80s art boom than any male art star that they marketed, are dismissed as greedy and grasping harpies. Likewise, adulatory critic Rene Ricard is represented as a jealous young queen by the scenery-gnawing Michael Wincott. One gets the definite sense that Schnabel -- as both director and participating artist -- isn't looking back with fondness or gratitude at the people who formed his ladder rungs.

All the myths and a few facts about Basquiat the painter are included in Basquiat the movie. But, in the final analysis, the film is less about the late "radiant child" -- the son of wealthy Haitian immigrants turned graffitist turned overnight art-world sensation turned doomed junkie -- than about the time and the place and, yes, the director himself. Julian Schnabel is a clumsy and heavy-handed painter with delusions of grandeur; the same qualities somehow translate to film with a human rather than heroic iconography. What would be an excess becomes an irony -- none too subtle, but an irony nonetheless. As a jaded portrait of a jaded time, Basquiat is a minor masterpiece. It is, like Schnabel's paintings, a big clumsy picture, operatic and overstated; unlike his paintings, however, Basquiat's big picture is composed of small passages, many of them graceful melodies, a few of them with perfect pitch. -- Cory Dugan

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