Friday, July 19, 2013

Stanley Tucci: Actor/Gourmand

Stanley Tucci as Flickerman in The Hunger Games
     Stanley Tucci is one of those excellent performers, a so-called ‘character’ actor because he isn’t conventionally good-looking, who has quietly given heft to some of the most charming and sinister roles of the past twenty years.  He came to prominence with his mysterious and duplicitous portrayal of
Richard Cross in the first season of Murder One.  He’s gone on to appear in many movies (he’s probably best known as Caesar Flickerman in The Hunger Games) and TV (notably Dr. Kevin Moretti on ER), but it’s for two movies concerning food that show off his versatility.  This isn’t coincidence; his family is known for their cooking and love of food and he has published The Tucci Cookbook.

The Three Italian Restaurant Owners in Big Night
     Big Night caused a stir at Sundance and on critics’ best of 1996 lists.  It was my favorite movie of that year because I thought it most perfectly achieved what it set out to do and was all of a piece in terms of theme, plot, and mood.  In large part this is due to Tucci, who co-wrote, co-directed, and starred.  It shows the complex relationship between two Italian immigrant brothers on the New Jersey shore in 1958 as they try to make a financial success of their ambitious restaurant.  The problem is that they are competing with a popular establishment, run by an owner (Ian Holm) who’ll give the people what they want to keep a step ahead.  

The Big Night
     Primo and Segundo (Tony Shalhoub and Tucci) are ahead of their time; their place, Paradise, is exactly what foodies wanted in the ‘90s.  Pascal’s, their competition, looks like a fun relic that’s cynical and shallow, but it’s completely of its era.  The American Dream is a chimera that’s out of the brothers’ grasp.  It’s tragic, but there’s a beauty in their creation of an extraordinary meal for a big night to honor Louis DiPrima.   The whole cast from the leads and Isabella Rossellini and Minnie Driver to the smaller parts (this was one of Liev Schreiber’s first appearances and Allison Janney for us) seems to have realized these people.  It’s the only time I’ve liked Marc Anthony in anything.

Tucci, Anthony, and Shalhoub
     It’s a small movie, though, and quiet.  It makes its points without underlining them and the tone is both celebratory and clear-eyed about what might destroy the brothers.  There’s no clear cut hero or villain and, unlike other independents of that time, there is an almost classically constructed plot and no whining by the characters; they’re adults and that’s what set it apart, but may have also led to its lack of financial success.  The one quibble is a continuity gap with Alison Janney’s character’s shoes.  I showed it to some high school students this summer and it was too understated for them.  They weren’t ready for something that is both funny and sad.  

     Julie and Julia was a big deal because of Meryl Streep’s prodigious comic performance as Julia Child and Nora Ephron’s witty, touching script and deft, discreet direction.
Tucci and Streep
in The Devil Wears Prada
Tucci played Julia’s husband Paul and their chemistry together – they were also in The Devil Wears Prada a couple of years earlier – along with the detailed and accurate recreation of 1950s France are the strongest elements.  The movie focuses more on Julie Powell, played courageously by Amy Adams as a narcissistic, put-upon, second-rate prima donna, and her husband Eric, in another good guy performance by Chris Messina.  (I wish somebody would write him and Rachel Weisz updated versions of the types of parts Robert Mitchum would have played with Deborah Kerr in the ‘50s or early ‘60s.  I bet they’d be great together).  Again, I showed the movie to the same high school students and I could feel them perk up during the Childs’ story and want to use their cell phones, which I’d forbidden, during the Powells’ story.  

Tucci as the Devoted Husband
in Julie and Julia
     Ephron cleverly built in a subtext to the movie that makes it worth a deeper viewing for those so inclined, but still make it seem like a movie about two women with wonderfully supportive husbands who found themselves through cooking.  Yay!  Julia Child actually didn’t care for Julie Powell’s blog because she thought it was a stunt.  That isn’t explicated in the movie, but viewers probably would agree with Child.  Although portrayed as a joyous force of accepting nature, Julia was a more complex person than the one presented and became more progressive in her thinking towards gays as she aged.  

Paul Child Toasts To Their Future
     The bigger question is what happened to the U.S. between World War II and 9/11?  The Childs were open, patient, erudite and willing to think deep.  It also helped that in that era the American dollar went a longer way in war destroyed Europe than it does today and that the U.S. was looked upon as an idealistic, though naïve, knight in shining armor.  9/11, though a tragedy, was not anywhere near the disaster that Europe and Asia endured in the ‘40s.  The U.S. has faced a more ambivalent attitude from its allies in the past twenty years than earlier.  The Powells were much younger than the Childs in age, outlook, and especially in maturity, but Julie’s reactions to momentary setbacks were completely out of proportion.  The gratifications of instant recognition, momentary fame, and potentially big bucks have, unfortunately, replaced mastering skills to achieve enduring excellence.  That was the strongest theme underlining the differences between the two eras and sets of characters and I think those high school students picked up on it.

     Stanley Tucci is of the same generation as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Forest Whitaker, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, James Gandolfini, and Demián Bichir.  Clooney, Pitt, Penn, Depp, and Whitaker established themselves as the central points of their movies with, respectively, Out of Sight, A River Runs Through It, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Edward Scissorhands, and Bird, respectively, while Gandolfini did the same on TV with The Sopranos.  Bichir may get that same chance if the already intriguing The Bridge on FX on Wednesdays takes off.  I’m hoping that Tucci gets the same chance.  His work is terrific but, at this point, it’s not the reason people want to see it.

I've really liked all of Stanley's movies!


Bea said...

Big Night is one of my all-time favorite flicks. Recently, I hosted a film-n-food night at my place where I showed Big Night and served Italian-American type foods buffet-style. It was a hoot!

Dexter said...

Sounds like fun! So what's your other favorite movie?