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and Stanley Tucci

The revelation of last spring’s Filmfest DC, Russ Hexter’s Dadetown is the only movie I’ve seen this year that expands the boundaries and vocabulary of cinema. This mock documentary, the bogus pilot for a PBS series about American small towns, chronicles a traumatic year in the life of an imaginary yet all-too-recognizable upstate New York community. Dadetown begins as a razor-sharp, deadpan satire of provincial boosterism, precisely mimicking and wryly parodying the conventions of cinéma vérité filmmaking, then grows darker as contemporary economic and societal pressures erode the stability of its archetypal municipality.

No formal or thematic cliché eludes director/co-writer Hexter’s gaze. Vintage black-and-white photographs document Dadetown’s 150-year history. Talking-head interviews with inhabitants present a mosaic portrait of the complacent town’s vaunted stability and security. We meet the baby-kissing mayor, hear the school band torture “America” at a playground dedication, and spy on the local eccentric, an elderly man who wanders about slapping green paint on everything in sight. Older residents wax nostalgic about the town’s World War II economic heyday, when the Gorman Metal factory (now reduced to making staples and paper clips) fabricated aircraft parts. And we witness the arrival of a new industry, high-tech American Peripheral Imaging (API), which, encouraged by generous tax incentives, has consolidated several metropolitan offices in bucolic Dadetown. Although the community’s backwater limitations are noted in passing—it has no movie theaters or fast-food outlets—and some coolness exists between the townies and recently relocated corporate yuppies (symbolized by mixed reactions to the opening of a cappuccino bar), Dadetown survives as a Norman Rockwell–Bob Dole dream (and a Preston Sturges nightmare.)

Gradually, Hexter’s vision shades from muted satire to grim social realism. Crippled by overseas competition, the financially depleted Gorman factory downsizes, laying off 150 longtime employees. The economic and cultural gap between Dadetown’s blue- and white-collar workers widens. Random acts of anonymous vandalism occur; the homes of API professionals are defaced with red paint, and deer carcasses are deposited on their doorsteps. At an acrimonious town meeting, elected officials are castigated for the 60-percent tax break granted API as a relocation incentive. Disaffected Gorman unionists vote to strike the failing company, a decision that further polarizes the disintegrating community. Armed guards stand as sentinels on Gorman’s roof; a young boy is shot, the accidental victim of mounting anxieties. Hitherto genial townspeople begin mouthing racist and xenophobic sentiments, even blaming the filmmakers themselves for precipitating the community’s crisis. By the closing credits, Dadetown’s traditions have been irrevocably shattered by the new order of glo-bal economics.

Few American independent filmmakers have dared what Hexter so seamlessly achieves in Dadetown. He invents, from whole cloth, an entire community as richly nuanced as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner dystopia, on a budget ($300,000) surely lower than that Hollywood classic’s catering bill. All the inhabitants—there are over 80 speaking roles—are impersonated by actors, mostly amateurs, improvising dialogue within the parameters of scripted characters. Locations in Hammondsport and Rochester, N.Y., are deftly conflated to create this nonexistent yet palpably believable community. At a time when mainstream moviemakers are retreating to the comforting past of costume-heavy classic-novel adaptations or time-tripping to the future to evade the disruptive fissures of contemporary American society, Hexter addresses the worrisome present head-on.

Raised in affluent Westchester County, N.Y., Hexter studied filmmaking at New York University, where he made several short movies about working-class people. He shot Dadetown in 31 days in the spring of 1994, then edited 27 hours of footage down to 93 minutes. The enthusiastic reactions of audiences at film festival screenings attracted the William Morris Agency, which offered to represent him, and several production companies approached him to underwrite future projects. On April 29—the day before Dadetown’s Filmfest DC premiere—Hexter died of an aortic aneurysm. He was 27.

Although less innovative than Dadetown, Big Night, an independent feature co-directed by actors Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, is a charmer—fresh, funny, and warm-hearted. Tony Shalhoub and Tucci star as Primo and Secondo Pilaggi, Italian immigrant brothers who settle on the New Jersey shore and, hoping to prosper in their adopted land, open the Paradise restaurant. A culinary purist, Primo refuses to compromise his bill of fare to satisfy philistine American palates. (Screenwriters Tucci and his cousin Joseph Tropiano set their tale in the late ’50s; it would make no sense in this enlightened age of risotto and white truffles.) Secondo, the restaurant’s business manager, reveres his brother’s gastronomic artistry and integrity but gently (and unsuccessfully) pressures him to downscale the menu to save their business, which faces imminent foreclosure.

Pascal (Ian Holm), owner of a thriving, vulgar restaurant down the street where “the rape of cuisine” is committed nightly, comes up with a scheme to save the Paradise. He promises to invite his celebrity friend, entertainer Louis Prima, to dine at the Pilaggi’s eatery, thereby generating publicity and favorable word-of-mouth. Betting the last of their meager savings on this “big night,” the brothers prepare a lavish feast destined to make or break their business.

With its fastidious performances and compassion for its characters and their world, Big Night offers a welcome alternative to the brutalist Scorsese–De Niro blood-and-guilt vision of Italian-American life. Swarthy, puppy-eyed Shalhoub and trim, patrician-featured Tucci interact as though they were actual brothers—loyal and loving, even in moments of extreme exasperation with each another. Their empathy inspires the rest of the ensemble. Englishman Holm has no trouble shifting ethnicity as the affable but duplicitous Pascal. With her flattering Gina Lollobrigida haircut, Isabella Rossellini is a striking, self-assured Gabriella, Pascal’s shrewd, straying mistress. Minnie Driver is refreshingly unaffected as Secondo’s long-suffering American girlfriend, and Allison Janney is equally appealing as the down-to-earth flowershop owner who catches Primo’s bashful eye. Co-director Scott contributes some quirkily droll moments as a Cadillac salesman who takes Secondo for a test drive that results in an invitation to the banquet.

As with fine cooking, Big Night’s savor stems from careful attention to quality ingredients. Pascal’s Vegasy restaurant is production designer Andrew Jackness’ special triumph, a circuslike crimson-and-faux-stone Mafia hangout complete with walls of autographed celebrity glossies and plastic Leaning Towers of Pisa. Ken Kelsch’s crisp cinematography and Gary DeMichele’s musical score, which incorporates vintage recordings by Rosemary Clooney, Keely Smith and, of course, Prima, enhance the film’s ambience. (The screenplay’s choice of Prima as guest of honor is an inside joke: Prima’s boisterous Italian-American lounge act is as schlocky as Pascal’s spaghetti-and-Chianti menu. The Paradise’s refined cuisine calls for Frank Sinatra or, at least, Vic Damone.)

As the banquet draws to a bittersweet close, with ignited Amaretti wrappers floating in the air and celebrants stuffed to immobility, Big Night slips from the loving hands of its creators. An oceanside conflict between the brothers is clumsily staged, and the self-consciously protracted final shot—a morning-after breakfast reconciliation—ends the movie on a melancholy, incongruously pretentious note. I usually rail against the unconvincingly affirmative fadeouts slapped on Hollywood pictures, but the endearing protagonists of this delightful film deserve a more hopeful valediction than they’ve been allotted.

“If you give people the time, they’ll learn,” observes Primo, confident that quality will ultimately triumph over bad taste. One can’t help thinking that Scott and Tucci share his optimism regarding movies, and that Big Night can be viewed as an allegory about the conflict between art and commerce that has raged since the invention of motion pictures. Big Night, like Dadetown, has faith in the intelligence and discrimination of its audience. At a time when young filmmakers aim no higher than ersatz-Tarantino (the unbearably coarse Feeling Minnesota and 2 Days in the Valley), such respect gives us reason to hope that more nourishing screen fare awaits us.CP