It’s so damn fragile.
—Sandie (Jim Gaffigan)
It’s “September” in New York City, some time after the 11th in 2001. Citizens go on with their lives, changed and unchanged, their different upper-crusty experiences laid out in The Great New Wonderful as a sort of loose network. Structured to intimate a general sense of loss by showing these individual instances, the film’s metaphors rumble along at a slightly lower decibel level than those in its most apparent models, Crash and Magnolia.
The New Yorkers’ days begin banally, but also not. Sandie (Jim Gaffigan) is meeting with a therapist, the unfortunately named Dr. Trabulous (Tony Shaloub), who asks about his “relationships” with coworkers who died in the Towers’ collapse. Though the glaringly ordinary Sandie insists that he didn’t know anyone personally, that he feels no great grief, the doctor knows this cannot be true, and tells him to come back “each day” this week, so they can “get to the bottom of things.” When Sandie looks skeptical, Trabulous explains: “Shock can be a tricky thing… Sometimes our emotional response to horrific events can get buried, hidden from us at first only to appear after some time has passed.” Still, says the patient, smiling but not sure he should be, “I feel pretty great.”
This will be a sort of theme for Danny Leiner’s film, uneven but full of rewarding subtleties. No one is quite “in touch” with how he or she feels. While some folks find a way to make their fear and fury physical—Judie (Olympia Dukakis) attacks her silent husband, the professional security guards Avi (Naseeruddin Shah) and Satish (Sharat Saxena) attack enthusiastic tourist trying to get close to the general they’re guarding or one another—their outbursts can’t “fix” what’s wrong. While this is surely the case before 9/11, the film argues, now the terms of life have altered, meaning that being so “in touch” has become a moral imperative. To ignore or repress the grief-anger-fear that everyone must feel is to invite distortion and ugliness. It’s as if the attacks are refigured as “personal wake-up calls” for all those who’d prefer to keep sleeping.
Such an approach to 9/11 verges on being precious. Yet—and quite in spite of its plinky piano score—The Great New Wonderful conjures occasional vividness, irrepressible pain or insight. Allison (Judy Greer) and David (Tom McCarthy) are nurturing a self-defensively bland, glide-along-the-surface sort of relationship, not only with one another, but also with their asthmatic 10-year-old, Charlie (Billy Donner). As he sits at the breakfast table wearing a cowboy hat and heartily chomping cereal, his parents natter on about appliances not working and money they don’t quite have. They don’t see what’s in front of them, a child in real trouble. When, at night, Allison wants her husband to “fuck” her (and he resists, saying, “You know I don’t like that language”), they’re missing Charlie’s increasingly obvious turmoil and youthful acting out: one night they come home and find he’s been setting his “fucking soldiers” on fire in his bedroom. Again.
On one level, Charlie’s troublemaking is mundane: he’s a kid in an overmediated milieu, distant from parents who don’t quite understand how to be parents (“I feel like I’m living with a stranger,” moans Allison). But in the context of The Great New Wonderful, his bad behavior takes on other dimensions. When, for instance, his principal calls in David and Allison to discuss the boy’s latest infraction, the camera offers a kind of poetic prologue even as Mr. Peersall (Stephen Colbert) narrates the event: a couple of girls scramble in slow motion toward a sound you can’t hear, then double back, as a child is carried down a hallway. Charlie, reports the principal, “pinned Hector Garnikian to the ground, and was forcing dirt and gravel into his mouth while calling him a ‘sand monkey.’” Cut to inside the office, present time, as Allison repeats the term, astounded. “It’s a racial slur,” instructs Peersall, visibly frustrated.
While Charlie’s mom and dad worry whether he’s okay, they miss the larger point, that the boy is dangerous, that he’s caused a classmate to need stitches, that he might imagine someone his age so utterly other that he could do such damage. Peersall’s assessment is harsh (Charlie needs a “change of scenery,” because he’s “actually a selfish, incorrigible monster, with a heart made out of shit and splinters”), but it gets the parents’ attention. And while Allison looks stricken, David’s initial threat to Peersall (“You are in serious trouble, buddy”), suggests, barely, where Charlie learned to respond to fear with such chaotic vehemence.
While Charlie’s story forms only a small bit of New Wonderful‘s tapestry of unspoken traumas, its rendering is among the film’s most effective. At a terrible loss concerning what to do about the child, Allison and David embody the sort of lack of responsibility and compassion that allows pathology, alienation, and anxiety, if not outright cause them. It’s not malevolent, it’s only inept and selfish, a survival mode in a competitive, ever-urgent environment. They can imagine getting the dishwasher fixed, when they get around to it. Their son is too complicated.
Emme (Maggie Gyllenhaal) begins the film by living out a similar retreat. A very fancy cake designer (her latest line of $1,000 wedding possibilities is named after “Shakespeare’s women”), she’s been touched by 9/11 in ways she can’t voice to Dan (Will Arnett): he soaks in the tub with hydrating gel under his eyes while she smokes cigarettes and worries about her career. Her most immediate competitor in this apparently cutthroat market is Safarah (Edie Falco), who in fact does articulate a reaction to 9/11, more vividly than anyone else: “What a business,” she sighs, meaning cakes, presumably, but also alluding to the business of life. “After everything that’s happened, I can’t believe that nothing has changed, you know?” Safarah proposes taking action, actually doing something that matters to her, like “studying penguins.” But her description of them, so detailed and so passionate, leaves Emme mystified. She’s still stuck at “nothing has changed.”
That’s not to say Emme has lost the capacity for action, or more precisely, reaction. When she loses a job due to an offhand snide comment by her perpetually irritated assistant Justin (Jim Parsons), she knows how to hit back, firing him with surprising ferocity. Even as Justin opens his mouth to retaliate, determined not to go quietly, she stops him. “Get out of the fucking car, you fucking faggot, you fucking cliché.”
For a second, you’re stunned to hear Emme let loose like this, as she is too. And then, even if the film does grant her a couple of contrived moments of redemption (a stunned by comprehension scene, a teary scene), you see that this moment tells you everything. She gets something here that the film doesn’t even underline. She gets that she has yet to get it. This is as much knowledge as she can bear for now. And it’s more than most folks ever find.