There are five stories in “The Great New Wonderful,” each of them mildly droll and passably interesting, usually in a quirky way. They are all well-acted. What they do not have is a unifying theme.
This will be news to the screenwriter, first-timer Sam Catlin, who apparently believes that bringing up 9/11 in the last five minutes magically puts everything into perspective. It seems to have that effect on the characters, but the epiphanies they enjoy don’t reach the audience. All we can see is that THEY’RE getting something out of it.
What a great cast, though. How Danny Leiner, the director of “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle,” managed to get Olympia Dukakis, Tony Shalhoub, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Edie Falco and Stephen Colbert to appear in a film of his, I have no idea. Here they are, though, some of them with only a scene or two, all of them doing fantastic work.
The time is September 2002, just prior to the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The stories are not interconnected except that they take place in New York, and at one point individuals from each thread happen to be in an elevator together. (That’s done just to be cute, apparently. The scene has no actual purpose.) So we shall address the stories separately.
Emme (Gyllenhaal) is a hoity-toity pastry chef vying for a high-paying gig providing treats for an obscenely rich teenage girl’s birthday party. Her rival in the business is Safarah (Falco), and in an unguarded moment they both verge on admitting how absurd it is that cake-making should be such a cutthroat field.
Sandie (Jim Gaffigan) works at an office where there has recently been some kind of tragedy, and he has been ordered by human resources to spend some time with a psychiatrist named Dr. Trabulous (Shalhoub). Sandie is affable and carefree, but the shrink spins everything he says into something dreadful. Their scenes play out like a comedy sketch. “My father doesn’t like the crowds in the city.” “Does it bother you that your father is an intolerant bigot?”
A political figure from India is in town. Avi (Naseeruddin Shah) and Satish (Sharat Saxena), both Indian-born New Yorkers, are part of his security detail. They live next door to each other and have wives and children. Avi is cheerful and talkative; Satish is moody and sullen.
David (Tom McCarthy) and Allison (Judy Greer) are a married couple whose bratty son is, in the words of the headmaster at his private school, “a selfish, incorrigible monster.” They are at their wits’ end with the boy. They haven’t had sex in weeks.
Finally, there is Judie (Dukakis), an old Jewish woman stuck in a dull rut with her husband of several decades. She runs into an old friend from high school (Dick Latessa) who has actually BEEN places, and her dissatisfaction with her life becomes even more pronounced.
Actually, all of the characters are in some kind of rut — Emme in the confections rat race, Avi and Satish leaving their identical houses at the same time every morning and doing the same thing all day, Sandie forced to rehash his non-existent rage and sorrow for days on end with this weird psychiatrist. They would all be happier with something else, or so they think.
There are amusing moments sprinkled throughout the film, a few genuine laughs, and some nicely played dramatic scenes. I just wish it cohered into something more substantial, the way it seems to want to. This is a movie that strives to mean something without delivering the materials necessary to pull it off.
B- (1 hr., 28 min.; )