Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of the emotionally troubled characters in The Great New Wonderful trying to cope with life in post-9/11 New York.
For these characters, its not a wonderful life
By Leonard Quart
A low budget, indie ensemble film, directed by Danny Leiner, The Great New Wonderful is about five sets of disparate New Yorkers trying to cope with their emotionally troubled existences one year after 9/11. The film is not in any direct way about 9/11, but that apocalyptic day looms as a giant dark cloud that is present, perhaps unconsciously, in all the characters lives.
First, there is the remote and terribly competitive, pushy society cake vendor, Emme (a nicely modulated performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal), struggling to unseat NYs Queen of Cake, played by a slightly disenchanted Edie Falco.
An older woman, Judy Berman (Olympia Dukakis), lives in quietly desperate boredom and silence with her television-watching husband. But she begins to crave something more after meeting a high school classmate who rides a bicycle, likes wine and Italian opera, and is still capable of treating life as a joyous adventure. The Burbages (Judy Greer and Tom McCarthy) are caring but unseeing parents, who struggle to keep their lives and marriage together while acting, ineffectually, as co-dependents in dealing with their impossible to handle ten-year-old son.
Meanwhile, two immigrant security guards drive through the city on their assignments. They are best friends, but have very different personalitiesone of them is sullenly consumed by anger, the other is talkative, open, and sweet-tempered.
In the most strained and least realistic of the narratives, an incompetent company psychologist, Dr. Traboulous (Tony Shaloub), uses oddly confrontational techniques to get at the submerged rage of a bland ordinary man, Sandie (Jim Gaffigan), who has been a witness to an office tragedy.
The film is permeated with a general sense of angst and unease, with almost all the major characters suffering from a barely buried sense of emotional alienation, desolation and anger. Some of the films narratives are more penetrating than others, rendering the characters internalized tension without a false note. One of Leiners weaknesses is his irritating tendency to insert gratuitous shocks (sometimes black comic ones) into the filma suicide, a wife trying to push her husband off a balcony, and a man going berserk.
Still, Leiner has made a serious and psychologically perceptive film, augmented by some comic elements. He has skillfully interlaced the characters narratives, cutting fluidly from one to the other, and every last one of his actors gives a subtly nuanced and truthful performance. There are also evocative scenes like a disturbing nighttime sequence when a horrified Allison Burbage observes her son in an oval mirror acting out a distressing fantasy with an alligator puppet and a gorilla mask.
And after one scene, where Emme breaks down in tears after her triumph, we are left to assume that shes questioning what her obsessive drive for success has ultimately amounted to.
Leiner concludes each narrative on a bittersweet note, a bit too neatly. But generally The Great New Wonderful is film touched with an acute awareness of how people behave.