Judge Daniel MacDonald thinks this film's title is a bit modest.
Rebuilding is a process.
In The Great New Wonderful, five groups of New Yorkers work through personal struggles, with the specter of 9/11 haunting them all. It's a thoughtful film with rich characters and small, poignant story points that's enjoyable the first time and rewarding on subsequent viewings.
Facts of the Case
There are five individual stories here, and unlike many films that use this technique to show how connected we all really are, they barely overlap; one scene, in an elevator, is the only time most of them are ever in the same frame.
Emme (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary) is a celebrated professional cake designer, trying to stay one step ahead of her nemesis, Safarah (Edie Falco, Freedomland). Allison (Judy Greer, Adaptation) and David (Thomas McCarthy, Syriana) struggle with denial as they try to figure out how to best help their troubled son. Avi (Naseeruddin Shah) and Satish (Sharat Saxena) are high-level security personnel, discussing life as they carry out jobs. Sandie (Jim Gaffigan, Super Troopers) is forced to spend some time with a staff psychologist, Dr. Trabulous (Tony Shalhoub, The Last Shot). And Judie (Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck) starts to see flaws in her marriage routine when she runs into an old friend from school.
And that's it—it's a small film about small, intimate crises and pent up feelings, and although it's not discussed, it's largely about healing in post-9/11 New York. Also featuring Will Arnett (Arrested Development) and Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report) in unexpectedly dramatic roles.
It's a tall order, to create a film with a central, unifying theme, and to never have that theme explicitly discussed—like doing Crash without anyone ever mentioning race—and I certainly wasn't expecting such a successful achievement from the director of Dude, Where's My Car? and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. But, together with playwright Sam Catlin, director Danny Leiner has made a film that sneaks up on you, and unveils surprisingly emotional moments when and how you least expect. The events of September 11, 2001, are evoked through shots of planes flying over the city, the recently changed skyline, and familiar landmarks of NYC, but no character ever mentions the day.
Shot on a miniscule $500,000 budget in high definition video, this was clearly a labor of love for all involved. As discussed on the commentary, a couple of the stories were originally one-act stage plays, but by intercutting swiftly between plot lines, we're never in the same place with the same people for long, so the picture doesn't feel especially "stagy." There is an immediacy here that can be sometimes missing from play adaptations, which may be partially due to budget restrictions speeding up the shooting schedule, but which I think can be credited largely to the outstanding cast who all bring their A-game.
Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a quiet, restrained presentation that belies her character's inner turmoil. Always in control, her occasional late explosions of emotion are made that much more affecting. The amount of information she communicates to the audience through small gestures is really quite extraordinary, and the picture is worth seeing for her performance alone. But all the roles are well cast, with Olympia Dukakis, Judy Greer, and Tony Shalhoub all turning in characteristically solid work. Edie Falco is barely in the movie, but her character is important, and it was good decision to put someone recognizable in the role. Further, her scene with Gyllenhaal is a study in subtext, as they're communicating one thing with their facial expressions and another with their words.
Writer Sam Catlin jokes on the commentary about how nothing happens in the movie, and it's true that there's not a lot of plot here. But the characters are so well realized, and the pacing during the short 87-minute running time so fleet, that I really enjoyed spending time with them, and got wrapped up in their worlds. What I especially appreciated was the lack of self-loathing—these people don't necessarily feel great about themselves, but their not looking for pity either. Instead, they're living their lives, taking it as it comes and rolling with the punches.
I found the most surprisingly touching moment came during the Avi and Satish storyline. The two spend most of the picture as a sort of comic relief, rarely talking about anything of substance. But when things turn serious, it's fast and unexpected and ultimately satisfying. Each of the five stories has its cathartic moments, but this was the one that moved me the most.
Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian (Winter Solstice) has shot a beautiful looking piece, and you can't easily tell that it's been done on video. New York City is captured in some fine compositions, and often the details of the city contained within the frame remind the viewer of its post-9/11 setting.
The DVD comes outfitted with a feature set that should please fans of the film. First off, you can watch each of the stories as their own "mini-movie"—it's all of the scenes in that story edited together, and is an interesting way to revisit the characters' arcs. Next are about 11 minutes of deleted scenes, available with or without commentary. A couple seem like they would have added to the film had they remained in, but for the most part, as is usually the case with deleted scenes, they're better left on the cutting room floor. There is a collection of city shots that didn't appear in the film, and a slideshow of still photos, both mildly engaging. Further, you can view the trailer for the film, the trailer for the upcoming picture Edmond, and read more information on the "Great New Wonderful" Outreach Program, designed to help those affected by 9/11 find assistance.
Finally, despite what the case says, there is a commentary with both Danny Leiner and writer Sam Catlin. The two have a conversational, informal style, and provide lots of interesting tidbits on just how low-budget the production was. Leiner finds a few scenes to criticize, as well, for not coming out as good as he hoped, a level of modesty not always present on commentary tracks.
I liked The Great New Wonderful a lot. It's one of those hidden gems you can find at the rental store when all the copies of Poseidon are out, and end up enjoying more than you expected. I recommend searching it out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Independent Pictures
• View as Five Mini Movies
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