After 9/11, people changed. Maybe not in overt ways provoking entire personality makeovers, but there were quiet little shifts that affected everyone, especially New Yorkers. The Great New Wonderful, set in the city one year after the attacks, showcases the subtle transformations of regular folks trying to continue their daily routines. Director Danny Leiner has proven his knack for stoner comedies (Dude, Where’s My Car?, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle), but can he take on a subject this heavy? Better yet, do we want him to?
The Great New Wonderful may not exactly live up to its title, but it’s a respectable effort all the same. When dealing with multiple storylines, invariably some will be more interesting than others; wisely, the film begins with one of the best ones. In a strange therapy session, Dr. Trabulous (Tony Shalhoub) talks with a white-collar employee, Sandie (Jim Gaffigan), from one of the fallen towers. While the sweet-natured patient is all smiles and jokes, the doctor randomly says, “You`re furious—I’m actually quite concerned you may, at any moment, pick up your chair and hit me in the head with it.” His sporadic diagnoses, that are probably as funny to us as they are scary to Sandie, suggest he may need some good old-fashioned counseling himself.
Equally as engrossing is the story of a yuppie couple (Judy Greer & Tom McCarthy) who though happily married, could desperately use a shot of sex, straight up. A possible reason for the physical hiatus is their deeply disturbed 10-year-old son (Bill Donner), who eats enough for a family of twelve and brutally assaults kids on the playground, leading to several suspensions. Of course, his parents are so deeply buried in denial that they don’t even realize their kid is the second coming of Damien.
The rest of the tales are less developed, although they have their attention-grabbing moments. Best friends/security guards Satish (Sharat Saxena) and Avi (Naseeruddin Shah) chew the fat and share different attitudes about the country; a comfortably numb Coney Island native (Olympia Dukakis) is reminded that life can be more rewarding than a conversation-free marriage; and a competitive cake designer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with an endless quest to be the best in her field, finally takes the blinders off.
Denial may be the central theme of The Great New Wonderful. The characters have few connections apart from their shared detachments from reality, and outside of a chance meeting, there is nothing linking each person to the next—except that they could all benefit from a handful of happy pills. The script by actor-turned-writer Sam Catlin treads a thin line between saying things gently and saying nothing at all, but the talented cast is able to flesh out their roles with compelling, nuanced performances. Everyone is fantastic here, including Edie Falco and Stephen Colbert in blink-twice-and-you’ll-miss-them bit parts.
There's a lot to admire about this movie, especially its lack of sentimental manipulation when dealing with the topic of 9/11. In fact there is little mention of it altogether, outside a panorama of the changed New York skyline, a plane flying overhead, and an abruptly-stopped elevator that leaves its passengers clenching their teeth. Between the subtlety of The Great New Wonderful and the emotional wallop of United 93, 9/11 movies are—who knew?—off to a promising start.