The first anniversary of 9/11 is the nearly invisible backdrop of The Great New Wonderful, a questionable leap into the dramatic deep end from Danny Leiner, the auteur who gave us Dude, Where's My Car? and Harold and Kumar. Taking its inspiration (and possibly even some musical cues) from the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, it quilts together the lives of several upscale New Yorkers. A sliver of connection between them is attempted only once, when most of the cast piles into the same elevator in an office building. Other than that, they are soloists, performing arias of muted psychic pain; the only thing they have in common is a desire to shake off the memory of that day. Maggie Gyllenhaal, with her silent movie-star face, pulls down the lion's share of screen time as a tightly-wound, social-climbing cake designer. Stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan is nicely cast as a twitchy office drone who, after an unnamed 'incident' at work, must undergo counseling with Freudian analyst Tony Shalhoub. Tom McCarthy and Judy Greer are a thirty-something married couple at their wit's end with their young son, who slings racial insults at schoolmates and terrifies his parents at night by walking around in a gorilla mask and reading books on how to skin animals. These vignettes are the most buoyant of the piece.
Much, much less successful are a rambling love story featuring a mummified Olympia Dukakis and a nearly incomprehensible segment involving two Indian immigrant security guards, whose broken English is subtitled throughout their portion of the film, I guess for comedic purpose. To say that these segments weigh down the rest of the film would be a ghastly understatement, like saying the Madonna segment in Four Rooms kind of weighs down the rest of that film. These sections are so unfocused they encourage you to stare up at the ceiling, and ponder bigger questions, like: Why was it necessary to wait nearly five full years for the first batch of 9/11 films? Classless though it may be to admit, the wounds of that day are no longer fresh and the emotions have been diluted and scrambled together with years of manipulative jabber from all quarters. Politics has even swept into this film. Star Maggie Gyllenhaal was conspicuously missing in action during the press junket for The Great New Wonderful, almost certainly due to fears that she would be peppered with questions about her personal opinions.
After seeing the movie, you'll agree that a little spouting off about something would not have been out of order. For most of the film, Gyllenhaal's character is content to scrunch her face into a grimace as those around her prove to be either a personal disappointment or a professional impediment as she goes about her quest to become the Cake Queen of Manhattan. The one time she lets loose with a tirade the target is not Dick Cheney, but her hapless assistant, who makes the mistake of recommending a low-fat cake to a chubby Park Avenue debutante, squelching a big sale. Gyllenhaal's cake-world rival is played by Edie Falco, and the film has some fun slinging realistic-sounding cake jargon around; there are whispers about whether or not someone will actually present an "opalescent ganache" this season. The cakers hone an overly-professional style and try to bowl potential clients over by acting like spoiled architects, hemming and hawing over whether or not to take on a big project. "Design, sugar, frosting and garnish are all price factors," one of them informs a mark. "We begin base labor at $1800."
Although Falco's character is referenced continually throughout the film, her screen-time is limited to one scene lasting all of three or four minutes. It's possible that her part was meant to be a brief cameo from the start, but the frequency with which it's referenced and the angle it eventually takes seems much more appropriate for a character the audience has invested in -- there's something slapdash in the way it's handled. Playwright Tony Kushner also has a walk-on role, but he literally walks from one side of the room to another and then disappears, never to be heard from again. Maybe Falco had different ideas about how much she would contribute to the film than the director did. Another cameo -- one that you'll probably hear about more than any other -- is Steven Colbert as the principal of the school where Tom McCarthy and Judy Greer's monstrous son is causing havoc. His moments in the film are a few where the dialogue really clicks, and it seems possible that Colbert pushed the writer and director aside and wrote his own material. One moment in particular, where he seems to be encouraging the parents to send their son to a hospital for the criminally insane, is priceless:
Judy Greer: He's just going through a rough time right now.
Tom McCarthy: He's gotten a bit spoiled, but if that's anyone's fault it's ours. Deep down, he's a good kid.
Greer: He's actually a great kid.
Steven Colbert: He's actually an incorrigible monster with a heart made out of shit and splinters.
When September 11, 2002 finally comes, a torrent of repressed emotion is unleashed. There's an assault, a suicide, and a little girl's karaoke song that causes an emotional breakdown for one of the characters. The day itself seems to be remembered by the director as a time of reflection -- a memorial in waiting. That's not quite how I remember it. The characters never express a palpable fear -- as most real New Yorkers did -- that the ones who orchestrated the first hit might have anniversary plans of their own. In fact, they seem too detached to care much about anything. The two achingly bad vignettes aside, this film suffers from a determination to stay true to some notion of Manhattanites as cool calculators who are too busy living out their big lives to be bothered by anything on the macro level. There's a giant elephant in the middle of the room and no one ever acknowledges it. That's not realistic. It's certainly not the Manhattan I know, where the one affliction no one seems to suffer from is lockjaw.