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The appearance of "United 93" and "The Great New Wonderful" at around
the same time is a very fitting artistic take on the impact of 9/11 on
the hearts and minds of Americans. So many other films have cropped up
here and there, nearly all of them heartless polemical tirades from
various points of view, which I think reflected more on feelings and
opinions that existed before 9/11 and merely used the tragedy as a
While "United 93" was a monument to the victims of 9/11, and how they faced down the human and political significance of that morning, "The Great New Wonderful" is a reflection of how the rest of us live with the personal, emotional aftermath of that day, whether we had a direct connection to the events or not.
"The Great New Wonderful" will probably be the only film dubbed a '9/11 movie' which didn't resort to any melodramatic exposition from that day to make its point. No flaming towers, no cheap-and-easy "my brother, the fireman who died/my sister, who was in Tower 1/my father, the cop...." plot devices. It vividly demonstrates the emotional, collateral role that 9/11 played in the lives of tens of millions of Americans who lived through that day and were shaken and transformed in ways that were too personal to articulate to others or themselves.
Beyond the film's calendar setting and the concluding moments which take place at about 9am on September 11, 2002, there is only one oblique reference to the attacks impacting a character directly, hidden among the films many humorous lines (an apt New York coping mechanism woven through the whole script), and it becomes a climax of its own, the moment in the story when each character's pent-up personal hell explodes forth.
Mid-way through the film, many of the far-flung characters end up together in an elevator. There is a sudden jolt, the lights flicker, and the sound of rattling cables and wires fills the space. It is a mere moment. Then, the elevator restarts and arrives at the floor of Sandie (Jim Gaffigan), who has spent the film attending therapy sessions in his company's break room with Dr. Trabulous (played by the sublime Tony Shaloub) to discuss some unnamed office tragedy which took place on "the 7th floor" of the company's offices in which several co-workers were killed. Sandie steps off the elevator, and a cranky old man in the back corner, seen earlier asking a cantankerous question at a Queens neighborhood meeting, mutters "well, you made it out alive," to which the cheery Sandie replied, "yeah!" and smiles. Minutes later, Sandie has finally opened up with Dr. Trabulous, in tears, realizing that behind his scarily cheerful, productive, doe-eyed American veneer he is seething with rage and anguish and trauma. In due course, the explosion inside Sandie is so primal that he leaves the doctor with a head wound on the floor and flees on foot to his parents' home in Connecticut.
But Sandie is an exception -- being the only presumed direct victim of the attacks, he is the only one with a doctor caring for his wounds. The rest of the characters -- from Olympia Dukakis' somnabulent, elderly housewife to the self-absorbed yuppie couple (Judy Greer and Thomas McCarthy) who cannot grasp the venality of their son's mental illness -- like us were left to struggle alone. Perhaps the most ingenious subplot involves the pointless rivalry between Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco, a signature New York/U.S. upper-class drama in a laughably (but all too believable) superfluous world where rich, idiotic clients pay tens of thousands of dollars for birthday cakes, and the two wealthy cake-artists are vying for the decisive favor of a spoiled, uninterested teen-aged heiress. (Will Arnett's turn as Gyllenhaal's pampered husband is a great touch.) So brilliant -- cakes! -- representing the ruthless spiritual hollowness of so much of Manhattan's gliteratti before 9/11, and as Falco says in her one, powerful scene, "it's amazing how after everything that has happened, everything is still the same."
"The Great New Wonderful" is such an unsentimental, powerfully true look in the mirror; it is required-viewing in the 9/11 oeuvre. While "United 93" is a raw, draining and ultimately necessary catharsis akin to an open-casket wake, this film will stay with you much, much longer. It makes stark moral statements -- some might even argue it explores the human, non-political, universal root of the murderous criminality of 9/11 itself -- and sometimes the audience's reaction in the theater (keep an eye out for when the nervous laughter in the room subsides, or if it subsides at all) is just as fascinating as the action on screen.
If hysteria was the symptom of the nineteenth century and schizophrenia
that of the twentieth, The Great New Wonderful, confronts the question
of what symptoms will characterize the twenty-first and what better
place to look than Post 9/11 New York City? Dr. Trabulous (Tony
Shalhoub) nails it when he says that he senses in patient Sandie (Jim
Gaffigan) "anger" and "disappointment". These symptoms characterize the
five stories that weave through the film.
In Emme's story we see a fancy cake maker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is trying to nab the top spot from competitor Safarah Polsky (Edie Falco). David (Thomas McCarthy) and Allison (Judy Greer) are struggling to raise a troubled, overweight, possibly violent child. Judy Hillerman (Olympia Dukakis) finds herself going through the motions in her Coney Island prison of a middle class life and in Avi's story, he (Naseeruddin Shah) and his partner face changed expectations of other people. In each anger and disappointment hold sway. The film has very subtle references to its post-9/11 setting. Avi looks up when he hears a plane pass overhead. Allison turns on the nature noises machine on the bedside table in an unsuccessful attempt to drown out the noise of sirens that fills the bedroom. And Safari Polsky, bowing under the weight of her own ambition, sighs when she says that after all that has happened nothing has changed. The tension builds throughout the film and the comedy becomes blacker as we understand the characters better and come to empathize with their symptoms.
Danny Liener, Sam Catlin and Matt Tauber do a great job weaving the stories together into a coherent whole, despite the ambiguities left in each story. The film does not attempt to answer the questions it poses, simply extracting them from what seems like a smooth exterior. Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian does an incredible job with limited time and resources creating a fantastic looking film.
Like Salman Rushdie's book, Fury, GNW illustrates the underlying anger characterizing contemporary cosmopolitan life and the fine line that separates civilization from the bubbling up of this fury and chaos. Add the post-traumatic stress of 9/11 and you get an amazing story of society and humanity. As Rushdie writes, "But our nature is our nature and uncertainty is at the heart of what we are, uncertainty per se, in and of itself, the sense that nothing is written in stone, everything crumbles. As Marx was probably still saying out there in the junkyard of ideas, . . . all that is solid melts into air. In a public climate of such daily-trumpeted assurance, where did our fears go to hide? On what did they feed? On ourselves, perhaps . . . "
Saw this at the Tribeca Film Festival and didn't know what to expect. After all I had heard that it was a " 9-11 comedy". Nonetheless, I was REALLY impressed with how the entire movie was done. The writing and the performances were both top notch. I HIGHLY recommend this movie. It is based around 9-11 but side steps going for the jugular on the subject. All the actors were great, especially Maggie Gylenahaal and Tony Shaloub. Gim Gaffigan is also amazing. He attended the screening and jokingly told us that he was lucky Phillip Seymour Hoffman turned down his role. Too true. The movie showed just the right amount of sensitivity. Check it out.
Beautifully woven, complex and subtle, this film captures an essence of NYC after 9/11. A great script, some stunning photography, an excellent score that helps tie it all together, and a great ensemble cast make this small film seem quite large. The emotions that bubble under the surface, only sometimes breaking through, give this film its strength and its power. Different stories of different people all struggling with day to day life sharing the common experience of being New Yorkers post 9/11. The references to what happened are almost all unspoken, evoked through the images displayed or the background sounds, yet there is no doubt that what happened is a force in the lives of all of these people. Intelligent film-making at its best.
The Great New Wonderful is about several groups of people all living in NY after 9/11 and running up to the first anniversary 9/11/2002. Each group has their own demons to deal with, seemingly as a result of the memories of 9/11, but the film doesn't deal directly with the event itself. You get to know the characters and how ordinary their lives are and then things get kind of wacky as the first anniversary approaches. More of a drama than a comedy, this film is technically top notch, but it is emotionally heavy, almost smothering. Perhaps it's best to stay away from films released in Sept to avoid getting beaten down by the heavy and repetitive themes of overt sadness and ptsd.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The first hint about how the tragedy of 9/11 is affecting the different
characters one encounters in the film appears early on when we meet
Sandie, and his analyst, who are starting therapy session. Dr.
Trabulous, who has come to Sandie's office, asks him about some people
that might have been some of the victims of the tragedy. Samie answers
he didn't really know them since he worked on a different floor. It
appears Sandie is feeling guilt having survived.
The other four vignettes deal with New Yorkers of different walks of life, who have been touched, in one way, or another, by the horrific attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
There is a sweet reunion when Judy Hillerman, a woman of a certain age meets Jerry, a former high school friend who has returned to Brooklyn, after many years of living away. Judy, who is married, lives a routine life catering to her retired husband. When Jerry appears, Judy comes alive because the connection with the long lost friend.
Emme, the cake maker for the rich and famous, is not too happy. Her rival, Sarafah Polsky, is a successful woman who is doing exactly what Emme wants to do. Her married life leaves a lot to be desired; there is not much communication with her narcissist husband. At the end of the film Emme is staring blankly into the streets below her as the bells toll in remembrance of the death. It's only hinted that Emme is also grieving.
Avi and Satish, the security guards, are seen following a visiting dignitary, who could be Indian, or Pakistani. Their conversation, which is dubbed, go from the banal, to the way they perceive the society in which they are living now.
The fifth story deals with a couple whose young son has turned into a monster that is hard to control. No matter what Allyson and David do to help their young boy seems to work. It's up to one of the teachers in the child's school to tell them what their son has turned out to be. As the film ends we watch the empty room formerly occupied by the boy.
Danny Leiner, whose previous work we had enjoyed, shows he is a director to be reckoned with. Working with screen writer Sam Catlin, these stories flow seamlessly making a point about loss, tragedy and vulnerability in the study of the characters. The cinematography by Harlan Bosmajian has the right kind of darkness to accompany what is seen on the screen.
A great ensemble cast was put together. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jim Gaffigan, Tony Shaloub, Olympia Dukakis, Dick Latessa, Sherat Saxena, Naseeruddin Shah, Judy Greer, Will Arnett, and the rest do an excellent job in conveying Mr. Leiner's ideas.
It's a shame this film has not found a bigger audience judging by the screening we attended at the Angelika, the other day. Mr. Leiner deserves better.
Decent, if not altogether powerful ensemble dramady is a subtle ode to the struggling inhabitants of NYC one year after 9/11, and is being released onto video five years later for the rest of the country to collectively grieve with. Though the film subtly uses the tragedy as a psychological backdrop to tell of these five eclectic character's personal dilemmas, the writer smartly abstains from any preaching of blatant and exploitive content when exploring this aftermath through his different voices, allowing for each conflict to become it's own theme. While the movie does take some time to build speed, eventually the lighthearted catharsis it was going for does spill forth, no doubt helped in part by the strong supporting cast. This is the perfect film for people who are still convinced they are too traumatized to watch anything clearly depicting September 11th, but by now feel the need to witness some sort of emotional connection, creatively, with that day.
It's admirable that director Danny Leiner and screenwriter Sam Catlin
have attempted to tackle the inarticulate emotional toll that 9/11 has
taken on a group of New Yorkers rather than tell a more visceral story
directly related to the tragedy (like Paul Greengrass' "United 93" or
Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center"). Unfortunately, the filmmakers'
intended cathartic exercise falls significantly short due to a
too-subtle patchwork narrative and the film's relentlessly enervating
pace. Five unconnected stories begin a year after 9/11, and we are
taken through the characters' paces in dealing with some form of
emotional denial. The most pertinent thread is initially the most comic
one in which a seemingly well-adjusted office worker named Sandie talks
to a sardonic psychologist, Dr. Trabulous, about the impact of the
The other episodes are somewhat more removed from the events of that day - Avi and Satish, a couple of bickering Indian security agents overseeing the speaking engagement of a foreign diplomat; a married couple, David and Allison, whose overweight adolescent son Charlie has become socially dysfunctional; Judie, an older woman in Brooklyn quietly seething about her tedious marriage as she seeks the company of Jerry, an old schoolmate; and an upscale cake designer named Emme who is trying to land a big client at the expense of her famous rival, Safarah. None of the stories really connect with each other except for a rather contrived scene in an elevator, though that seems to be the filmmakers' point, that the scope of 9/11 affected each of their immediate situations in idiosyncratic ways. The movie only runs 87 minutes, but it takes at least an hour for the stories to take shape toward some common dramatic point. Even then, it still feels too nebulous to make a resonant emotional impact, and consequently, the opportunity for catharsis feels frittered away.
It's not for the lack of a good cast. Stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan brings out Sandie's inner torment palpably as Tony Shalhoub listens with oblique bemusement; Maggie Gyllenhaal displays the steely shallowness of Emme as she faces an unexpected turn; Naseeruddin Shah and Sharat Saxena dexterously show their characters' opposing views on life and what secrets may lie beneath; Judy Greer and Tom McCarthy bring surprising depth to a couple confounded by their son's eruptive violence; and Olympia Dukakis is stoic strength personified as Judie. Edie Falco has nothing more than a cameo as Safarah, but her moments count. New York City is captured crisply by cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian on high-definition video. The DVD has a rather informal but somewhat interesting commentary track by Leiner and Catlin, as well as several deleted scenes and unused footage of the city. An intriguing extra is the ability to watch each of the five episodes separately as individual shorts. There is also the theatrical trailer, a gallery of stills accompanied by the soundtrack, and a helpful blurb about the outreach program organized to deal with post-9/11 trauma.
I found this film to be a poignant portrayal of the lives of several New Yorkers post 9/11. They lead lives of quiet desperation with a backdrop of the despair that lingers after 9/11. Although the death/destruction in lower Manhattan are never mentioned, the symbols of 9/11 are there as a constant reminder. The film has both funny, and sad moments, however I found the panoramic shots of lower Manhattan sans the WTC to be especially moving. Instead of taking a heavy handed approach, the director skirts the issue and lets the viewer draw his own conclusions. Danny Leiner shows a masterful touch at revealing the emotions deep inside these characters. Who wouldn't thought this is the same guy who brought us Harold & Kumar?
"The Great New Wonderful" marks the lead-up to a nervous anniversary I
vividly remember - September 2002 -- so it is difficult to separate out
my own recall of feelings of unease and dread in comparison to the
film's portrayal of how a somewhat disparate group of New Yorkers
experienced the same month or to evaluate it as a film on its own.
It certainly will have more resonance to New Yorkers than to others, even as TV's "Rescue Me has" already sneered at such feelings of those like most of the characters in the film who didn't directly lose a loved one or colleague on 9/11. But the documentaries and TV shows have focused on survivors and first-responders so that this attempt to capture every day New Yorkers, albeit mostly neurotic middle-class white ones, provides fresh insight.
The film well captures the malaise that seemed to infect us all, powerfully enough that I cried just before the climax, though to me it's like commemorating a yahrzheit, an anniversary of a death. When three-quarters through the film a plane traverses the screen, I gasped, just as I did at noisy planes throughout that month. While it took me over a year until I could even walk by Ground Zero, and then only by looking away from that hole in the ground, the repeating panning to the new skyline has already gotten too familiar to us and no longer has the shock of the gaping hole in the sky, or maybe the golden-tinged panorama is more of midtown with the Empire State Building restored as our icon than of lower Manhattan.
Directed in an European-feeling style by Danny Leiner, like an inter-edited take on the 2002 collection of 11 minute thematically-linked films by 11 international directors "11'09''01 - September 11", the mordant script by debut screenwriter Sam Catlin emphasizes festering explosions of repressed violence in various forms, mocking New Yorkers' contentions that 9/11 would somehow change us forever to be more serious and to appreciate life and despite what we read in the wedding stories in The New York Times for a year or two afterwards.
Sharply edited through leisurely short stories that gradually ratchet up in pacing, the characters do not have coincidental mutual impact as in "Amores Perros" and even fewer interrelations than the characters in "Nine Lives" except for occasional propinquity that has a frisson of 9/11 jitters.
The five boroughs are represented, with an age range from senior citizens (a terrific Olympia Dukakis' restless Jewish wife in Brooklyn) to a frazzled couple (Thomas McCarthy and Judy Greer) coping with their creepy child who is manifesting more symptoms of an incipient serial killer than the teens in the Columbine-inspired "Elephant", to service workers of the rich-- an ambitious pastry chef (Maggie Gyllenhaal as the skinniest baker in the world) and her circle very amusingly prepare for a "My Super Sweet 16" on MTV-like party in a satire of "let them eat cake" as she unironically offers a fancy dessert called "The Ophelia"; a meek cubicle denizen (Jim Gaffigan) who apparently was in the Twin Towers that day so is in mandated counseling with therapist Tony Shalhoub that is surely inspired by similar scenes from "Miracle on 34th Street"; and a pair of Indian security guards (Naseeruddin Shah and Sharat Saxena). I kept expecting the last set to have perceived some increased tensions for being South Asian, but instead the two are coping in divergent ways.
What all the characters share is no control over their lives and dependence on other people's decisions. Each does takes an unpredictable step-- climaxes and catharses (whether violent, sexual or artistic) that vary in their credibility within the film. For most of the characters we see the build-up of their frustration and its aftermath but not their existential act-- like looking at that skyline before and after.
Some secondary characters work better than others. The only character at peace has Alzheimers and wonders how World War II will end. Edie Falco's business lunch with Gyllenhaal is a masterpiece of understated bitchy competition in its timing and politesse, but Will Arnett as the slacker husband does not add anything. Stephen Colbert, as always, is the master of the unctuous, here as the odd student's private school principal. Seth Gilliam is the opposite of his macho cop in "The Wire".
The film is full of very New York touches -- we see playwright Tony Kushner backstage at a Kevin Kline performance at The Public Theater, the residences reflect different neighborhoods, and there's lovely scenes of bedraggled Coney Island with a yet still beautiful Atlantic Ocean. Visual juxtapositions abound, such as a very effective scene as the camera backs up to gradually revealed to be taking place on Liberty Island.
The cinematography by Harlan Bosmajian is very washed out. One scene brightened up and I at first thought there was some symbolic importance about characters' growing emotional clarity towards the end, but then it seemed more of a brief accident.
While the score by Brett Boyett and John Swihart is effectively understated and helps to connect the segments, the pop song choices were just plain odd, with zero connection to New York, from Bob Seger singing about L.A., to a karaoke of Canadian Sarah McLaughlin's ode to ice cream, to New Zealand's Neil Finn over the credits.
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