2006 has seen the release of the first two Hollywood films to deal with the September 11th tragedies: April’s United 93 took audiences on the plane that never reached its target, downed by passengers in the middle of Pennsylvania; August’s even more bluntly titled World Trade Center took us to the disaster site itself, in a sea of twisted metal, with two Port Authority cops who eventually made it out alive. For the release of each film, the same basic question was asked: is it too soon?
The question was rephrased repeatedly, of course: in terms of artistic license, in terms of financial viability (and potential financial gain), in terms of therapy. Meanwhile, the best film to address these attacks so far is not either of these noble 2006 efforts, but rather, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. Lee’s film — somewhat overlooked upon its 2002 release — isn’t about 9/11, not directly, but it paints such a complete, complex portrait of New York City at that exact point in time (when I saw it in 2002, it felt as if it had been filmed just a few days prior and immediately released) that 9/11 becomes an inescapable backdrop, accentuating the film’s fear, resolve, uncertainty, and, finally, heartbreaking hope.
This is to say that if we can call the handful of 9/11 films so far a burgeoning dramatic sub-genre, The Great New Wonderful takes a more 25th Hour approach. If anything, it is subtle to a fault; this is a quality you may not expect in a film from Danny Leiner, master of the vehicular stoner comedy (he directed Dude, Where’s My Car? and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle). Set around the same time as Lee’s film, about a year after the attacks, Great New Wonderful is an ensemble drama in the style of Crash, Short Cuts, or Magnolia, but with looser interconnections and New York replacing Los Angeles (why does LA get all the ensemble-catharsis movies, anyway?).
What all of the characters share is a day-to-day uneasiness in post-disaster New York. Sandie (Jim Gaffigan) chats with work-ordered therapist Dr. Trabulous (Tony Shalhoub) about an unspecified office tragedy. Allison (Judy Greer) and David (Thomas McCarthy) sit in helpless passivity as their young son (Bill Donner) seems to grow more monstrous every day. Emme (Maggie Gyllenhaal) immerses herself in her work, even if her work involves designing pointlessly opulent cakes for spoiled teenagers. And so on.
As compelling as some of the material is — and much of it is, indeed, wonderful — the movie is unable to eschew some clichés, such as the mild-mannered everyman with rage buried deep down (Gaffigan) and the neglected housewife (here Olympia Dukakis) craving more from an ungrateful husband.
These familiar tropes could catch fire with less elliptical connections to 9/11, but as it is, some of the details are vague to the point of distraction. At first, for example, I thought that the tragedy alluded to in Sandie’s segment might, in fact, be 9/11 itself, but a second viewing reveals that the incident occurred in the afternoon. It could be argued, of course, that bringing more of 9/11 into these stories with more force would be exploitive, a cheap means of injecting more “meaning” into the proceedings. But that’s sort of what happens anyway; 9/11 is the backdrop for the movie, and some moments simply aren’t rich enough to sustain themselves without a stronger thesis.
The better stories are no more infused with 9/11 references, but, like 25th Hour, find their resonance in a strong sense of New York as a place. Maggie Gyllenhaal — also excellent in World Trade Center, there as the wife of one of the trapped cops — is especially strong as a striving young professional whose cake business is uniquely suited to a city like New York, yet also well-equipped to deaden her soul.
Another segment is adept at showing New York from several angles: Avi (Naseeruddin Shah), a bodyguard for a political figure, marvels over the city’s diversity, excitedly reporting the vast number of Chinese and Italian restaurants, while his partner, Satish (Sharat Saxena) alternates grumbling and yelling, seeming impatient with the city’s decadence and rudeness (or perhaps some unseen post-9/11 racial intolerance).
At one point about halfway through the movie, Avi, Satish, Emme, and a few other characters cross paths in an elevator, a gaggle of anxiety, friendliness, and the nervous energy that averages the two. For a brief moment, the elevator loses power, only to quickly start up again. In that second or two, you can tell what each of the characters is suddenly thinking about, their anxieties united as one. Leiner catches these moments with grace and truth; these moments linger as easily as the vague bits fade from memory.
The DVD’s 11 minutes of deleted scenes are divided between footage that reiterates points already made (such as a scene showing David and Allison coming home to find a quietly terrified babysitter) and footage that fills in some additional but not quite illuminating details (such as more time with Dr. Trabulous that makes him seem a more like an actual therapist). Another feature allows the viewer to watch the five stories in their own isolated segments. This is useful for revisiting certain moments in each story, but upsets the rhythm of the whole — a strong argument for the movie’s effectiveness even given its unevenness.
Leiner and writer Sam Catlin are effusive on their commentary track about their intentions, as well as the project’s evolution from script to screen; the audience may wish that the movie itself occasionally spoke up a little louder for itself. But 9/11 movies are still finding their footing; maybe some degree of evasion is necessary to move beyond the respectful quasi-objectivity of movies like United 93 and World Trade Center. Like the movie’s typically vague tagline says: rebuilding is a process.