On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, after numbly staring at news footage loops of the World Trade Center towers crumbling into dust and rubble, I watched Danny Leiner’s Dude, Where’s My Car? in a halfhearted attempt to distract myself from the near-incomprehensible tragedy unfolding not far south from my Manhattan apartment. It wasn’t a particularly successful idea, but as far as coping strategies go, it was still significantly more satisfying than enduring Leiner’s first “adult” foray The Great New Wonderful, a pale Magnolia photocopy composed of unrelated stories involving disaffected NYC professionals all burdened by 9/11-spawned malaise. Not that the Wall St. disaster has any real bearing on these trite tales of woe—eliminate the few title cards that indicate in which year the action is set (2002, during the months leading up to the event’s one-year anniversary), and remove an ominous shot of an airplane soaring through the bright blue sky, and the film would smoothly function as an undistinguished connect-the-dots melodrama about despondent ciphers wrestling with personal and professional crises.
With the minor exception of prickly, unsettlingly staged therapy sessions between an outwardly cheery corporate schlub (Jim Gaffigan) and a bizarre psychologist (Tony Shalhoub), The Great New Wonderful exhibits no trace of the random, goofy humor found in Leiner’s first two directorial efforts. But it’s not laughs that the film so woefully lacks; it’s complexity with regards to its rudimentarily intertwined plot strands. Every miserable individual, wracked by discontent and mired in denial, is a powder keg waiting to explode in some preposterous manner, whether it be by wielding a cafeteria chair as a weapon (Gaffigan), manhandling a tourist (Sharat Saxena’s security officer), hanging oneself shortly after admitting a desire to ditch the rat race for a life of studying penguins (Edie Falco’s pastry queen), or weeping uncontrollably at the sight of a young, lonely birthday party attendee delivering a karaoke rendition of Sarah McLachlan’s drippy “Ice Cream” (Maggie Gyllenhaal, as an upscale designer cake maker determined to become the number one desert provider for My Super Sweet 16 bitches).
Even though their roles contain all the substance of a glass of water, a commanding Gyllenhaal intermittently emits glimmers of sincere anguish, and an atypically restrained Stephen Colbert—back in Strangers with Candy land as a school principal—is granted one moment of cathartic magnificence, letting loose with a stunningly honest, caustic appraisal of a delinquent kid during a meeting with the child’s unhappy parents. Yet at every available opportunity the director (working from Sam Catlin’s script) glibly short-cuts his way through serious ethical and emotional dilemmas, using convenient narrative revelations, sorrowful musical montages, and laughable scenes of cosmic coincidence (such as one in which various characters find themselves sharing a high-rise elevator) to draw expedient—and consequently unaffecting—links between his narrowly conceived storylines. Finally admitting and confronting his deep-rooted desolation, Gaffigan, wandering around Central Park, momentously tells passersby, “I think I’m lost.” For a film about wayward souls seeking the path to contentment, however, I’ll take Leiner’s automobile-misplacing stoner dudes over these one-dimensional sad sacks any day of any post-9/11 year.