"The Great New Wonderful" uses 9/11's lingering aftermath as a frame for its multi-narrative portrait of New Yorkers on the edge. But you're often tempted to wonder whether 9/11 is more an excuse than a motif since the episodes of stress and denial collected here could have unraveled with or without a mass horror like the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Here's what we got: An ambitious pastry chef (Maggie Gyllenhaal) using fair and foul means to knock a celebrity rival (Edie Falco) off her pedestal; a psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub) probing through thick layers of good nature to unearth the torment of an office worker (Jim Gaffigan) who witnessed an unnamed workplace tragedy; a young couple (Judy Greer, Tom McCarthy) who put intimacy on hold while they tend to their violence-prone problem child; a pair of Indian security guards, one (Naseeruddin Shah) a happy sensualist, the other (Sharat Saxena), a moody grump. Add an elderly Brighton Beach matron (Olympia Dukakis) stifled by life and you might find something or someone to relate to.
Danny Leiner's film casts a wider emotional net than one might have expected from someone whose resume includes "Dude, Where's My Car?" and "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," though the Shalhoub-Gaffigan colloquy emits an aura of dark vaudeville. The situations concocted by Leiner and screenwriter Sam Catlin may seem overly schematic. But some nice surprises pop through the machinery, notably Stephen Colbert as a school principal struggling to maintain cordiality with clueless parents and Shah's gentility and ease of manner.