On Thin Icing

Washington City Paper | June 26, 2006
When contemplating making a movie about the events of 9/11, most filmmakers rightfully worry about trivializing the subject. Bolder than most, director Danny Leiner and scripter Sam Catlin confront that problem head on: Their The Great New Wonderful, which culminates on the morning of Sept. 11, 2002, fully embraces trivialization. An ensemble piece that makes the least of a decent cast of Amerindie and TV veterans, the film interweaves five stories about everyday people with more or less everyday problems. Superpremium-cake designer Emme Keeler (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is desperate to beat Manhattan pastry queen Safarah Polsky (Edie Falco) in the bake-off for a spoiled teenager’s frosted birthday trophy. South Asia–bred bodyguards Avi (Naseeruddin Shah) and Satish (Sharat Saxena) make their rounds while one chatters endlessly about sex and pop culture until his partner can’t take it anymore. Easygoing but supposedly traumatized office worker Sandy (Jim Gaffigan) endures the passive-aggressive probings of company-hired psychiatrist Dr. Trabulous (Tony Shalhoub). Allison Burbage (Judy Greer) and husband David (Thomas McCarthy) alternately confront and avoid the damage being done by their sociopathic 10-year-old, Charlie (Billy Donner), and then unite to reject the advice of school principal Mr. Peersall (Stephen Colbert). And Judie Berman (Olympia Dukakis), who’s bored with her retired husband and their old-folks lifestyle, is reanimated by meeting an old beau. Sandy’s story hints at tragedy, and one scene that assembles many of the principals suggests how coincidence can gather a cast of strangers for a shared catastrophe. But there are no disasters in this movie unless you count Catlin’s unconvincing dialogue, which owes more to sketch comedy than to character-driven satire. The worst offender is the relationship between Sandy and the shrink: The doc keeps needling his patient, a technique that can supposedly lead to a breakthrough but which is actually designed purely for cheap yuks. Sandy and the others can’t experience breakthroughs because they’re all stick figures, and it would take more than the climactic ringing of the 9/11 memorial bells to endow them with humanity. That’s another problem Leiner and Catlin deal with directly: The pointless title refers not to anyone’s post-9/11 revelation, but to Emme’s cake company.

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