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.