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.
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.
Hit 12 for me.
Run time: 87 mins
In Theaters: Friday 22nd April 2005
Box Office USA: $39.7k
Distributed by: First Independent Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
Fresh: 30 Rotten: 11
IMDB: 5.8 / 10
Director: Danny Leiner
Producer: Leslie Urbang, Matt Tauber, Danny Leiner
Screenwriter: Sam Catlin
Starring: Olympia Dukakis as Judy Hillerman, Jim Gaffigan as Sandie, Judy Greer as Allison Burbage, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Emme Keeler, Thomas McCarthy as Davie Burbage, Sharat Saxena as Satish, Naseeruddin Shah as Avinash aka "Avi", Tony Shalhoub as Dr. Trabulous, Stephen Colbert as Principal Peersall, Dick Latessa as Jerry Binder, Will Arnett as Danny Keeler, Seth Gilliam as Clayton, Anita Gillette as Lainie, Julie Dretzin as Julie Driscoll, Edie Falco as Safarah Polsky, Jim Parsons as Justin
Also starring: Danny Leiner
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