The Great New Wonderful Movie Review

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.

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.

Cast & Crew

Director :

Producer : Leslie Urbang, Matt Tauber,

Comments

The Great New Wonderful Rating

" Good "

Rating: R, 2006

Advertisement

More Maggie Gyllenhaal

Ahead Of US Release, Quirky Musical Comedy "Frank" Strikes The Right Chord With Critics

This week, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank came out of nowhere to great reviews and optimistic weekend predictions. It seems Michael Fassbender playing an eccentric musician, who...

Frank Trailer

Frank is an eccentric musician who refuses to be seen without the giant paper mache cartoon head he wears. As he embarks on a pursuit...

Frank Movie Review

While this comedy-drama is sometimes wilfully absurd, it's also exhilarating cinema, telling its story with conflicting amounts of warm emotion and prickly abrasiveness. Irish filmmaker...

Michael Fassbender Wears a Weird Mask in 'Frank', And The Critics Love It

The weird-and-wonderful world of ‘Frank’ was confronted by the critics in the last few days, and those critics responded with a wave of praise for...

Advertisement

A Week In News: 'Divergent' Dominates, A "Conscious Uncoupling," And Teenage Turtles Suit Up

Gwyneth Paltrow & Chris Martin Split: Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin announced this week that they were splitting up. Well,...

'Frank': Michael Fassbender's Sundance Opener Is Freakish Yet Fabulous [Pictures]

After winning a prestigious award or starring in a blockbuster, many actors never look back to their humble, low-budget, indie film beginnings. Thankfully, Michael Fassbender...

Michael Fassbender's 'Frank' To Lead Sundance London: Prepare For This Surreal And Hilarious Indie Flick

Sundance London 2014 will play host to many independent movies, but perhaps none so eagerly anticipated and talked about as Leonard Abrahamson's Frank, inspired by...

Kanye West And Maggie Gyllenhaal Among Stars Spotted At NY Fashion Week Vera Wang Show

The red carpet was lined with stars at the Vera Wang and Alexander Wang Spring/Summer 2014 fashion shows during the Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week....

Advertisement