Director Danny Leiner, known for his raucous arrested-development farces (“Dude, Where’s My Car?” and “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”), goes for something considerably more mature in “The Great New Wonderful,” a serio-comic ensemble piece whose various story threads are tied together, very loosely, by the fact that they’re all happening in the days preceding September 11–2002. But while the ghost of the tragedy that befell the city a year earlier is obviously meant to give the stories some special depth, except for one obvious exception it really doesn’t. Most of the tales could be happening anytime, although the generally downbeat mood is presumably designed to evoke the post-attack grimness that affects the populace and the tendency of the characters to explode is undoubtedly a sign of post-traumatic stress.
The interweaving plot threads can be briefly sketched. One involves an ambitious “celebrity” pastry designer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) desperate to snag a commission from her well-established rival (Edie Falco). Another concerns a long-married woman (Olympia Dukakis), increasingly dissatisfied with her humdrum life, whose chance encounter with a childhood friend suggests a means of escape. A third focuses on a yuppie couple (Tom McCarthy and Judy Greer) with an obese and obnoxious son (Billy Donner) whose anti-social behavior at school is the bane of his unsympathetic principal (Stephen Colbert). Elsewhere, two middle-eastern bodyguards (Naseerruddin Shah and Sharat Saxena) engage in “Pulp Fiction”-inspired conversation as they tool around guarding a visiting general. And finally, a schlub office worker (Jim Gaffigan) is questioned by an oddball psychologist (Tony Shalhoub) commissioned to ferret out evidence of bottled-up stress.
Obviously only the last of the mini-stories directly addresses the 9/11 issue; and though there’s one moment when characters from many of the episodes are brought together (they ride in the same elevator, which briefly stalls), for the most part they remain obstinately separate and independent. The result is that though there are amusing and poignant moments scattered throughout the individual threads, the stories never come together into a coherent whole, and the unsurprising closing revelations don’t carry the resonance they’re meant to have. The movie just sputters along offering occasional flashes of insight and eventually just evaporates ineffectually, neither great nor wonderful (nor, given the large number of such omnibus pictures made in recent years, particularly new).
One can, however, spend some time savoring the touches the starry cast brings to the material–Colbert’s suppressed rage, Gyllenhaal’s on-the-edge sadness, Shalhoub’s “Monk”-like oddity, Dukakis’ desperation. Of course, you have to put up with the nondescript look of the picture, with its purely workmanlike cinematography by Harlan Bosmajian.
It’s admirable that Leiner should want to stretch his talent and move away from the brainless comedies he’s specialized in to make a Big Statement. But the unhappy fact is that his ambitions, at least in this instance, exceed his grasp. He wants to say something important, but his cinematic and narrative technique isn’t up to the task; he lacks the subtlety required to tie things together skillfully. His adolescent fans, who will avoid “Wonderful” in droves, know there’s one kind of movie–maybe only one–he’s good at. And what they’re asking is, “Dude, where are the sequels?”