The Great New Wonderful represents a major departure for director Danny Leiner
in that it doesn't feature two perpetually stoned young men having outlandish adventures – or even one, for that matter. But the characters in the new film from the guy who made Dude, Where's My Car? and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle are, at least, walking around in a haze. They're all New Yorkers trying to get by in the wake of September 11, 2001, casually crossing paths in a series of stories that take place about a year after that devastating day.
These stories are not particularly confrontational, though they have their share of breakdowns and even occasional violence. Maggie Gyllenhaal
plays Emme, a rising star in the obscure but apparently high-stakes world of designer cakes; Sandie (Jim Gaffigan
) is a World Trade Center survivor who's meeting with a corporate therapist (Tony Shalhoub
); two parents (Judy Greer
and Thomas McCarthy
) bicker about their antisocial young son; an elderly woman (Olympia Dukakis
) flirts with escaping the dead-silent routine of her long marriage; and a pair of bodyguards (Naseeruddin Shah
and Sharat Saxena
) traipse around the city for an Indian political figure. If any of these stories sound like they could be stripped-down plays, with many characters standing neatly in pairs, it's probably because writer-actor Sam Catlin developed some of these ideas on stage. Article continues below
The mere fact that Leiner and Catlin's film is a human-scale comedy-drama with echoes, not recreations, of that tragic day, allows for graceful reflection; it's a relief to see filmmakers tackling the tragedy without blatantly charged imagery (it also makes a lovely companion to the immediacy of United 93
). But the film's low-key approach can be curiously indirect, to the point where many scenes or even entire plotlines prompt the question: What – specifically – does this have to with 9/11?
The film doesn't make a convincing case, for example, that the Dukakis character has terrorist attacks in mind as she sadly prepares dinner for her sedentary husband. It's hard to see 9/11 with so much familiarity blocking the view; half of a long-married couple feeling deadened by routine has become an indie-movie routine of its own. That is to say, there's a difference between subtlety and expecting an audience to recontextualize based on a title card that says "September 2002." You can see that the filmmakers went with a one-year-later setting to keep a balance between awareness of and removal from the famous events. But apart from the dramatic familiarity of "one year later," Wonderful's setting causes peripheral awkwardness: it places 9/11 close enough for some connections, but far enough away to cause some reaching, too.
Then again, it's hard to fault a film for being too subtle – especially when it pays off in many of the stories, often hinging on anxieties building to small but vital outbursts. The filmmakers snap an affecting group portrait of these catharsis-starved New Yorkers, composed of countless small moments: the eye contact between troubled mom Judy Greer and her son's principal (Stephen Colbert
); the testy small talk between bodyguards Shah and Saxena, about Planet of the Apes and Laurence Fishburne
; Gyllenhaal's whole, sharp etching of a woman experiencing a nigh-invisible crisis of conscience. The latter may be the film's most satisfying segment, as it pits the powerfully superficial side of New York culture against an equally relentless force of mourning and sadness.
In shepherding so many fine performances, and showing a preference for odd laughs over tearjerking, Leiner shows surprising facility for the tricky ensemble-dramedy form, just as Harold & Kumar surprised me with its improvement on the stoner farce of Dude. It's a shame that The Great New Wonderful occasionally strains as it reaches all around New York, searching for touched lives and subtext; it's an overachiever already.