The First Great 9/11 Film?

Top, Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Great New Wonderful; bottom, director Danny Leiner.Photo: From top, Juliana Thomas/Courtesy of Serenade Films; Amanda Marsalis

If you spent much time at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, you probably went to some great red-carpet parties—and some awfully disappointing movies (Raising Helen, anyone?). This year, you’ll find more swell parties, and you’ll be surprised to find some promising premieres on deck, from Wong Kar-Wai’s sci-fi romance 2046 to The Interpreter, starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman.

If that surprises you, you’ll also be surprised to hear that this year’s less glitzy competition films—which, last year, felt like Sundance’s reject pile—have improved significantly. And you’ll be stunned to discover that at least one of the New York films in this year’s competition—The Great New Wonderful—may be brilliant. Judging from a rough cut of the film, this wonderfully acted ensemble piece may be the best fiction film about post-9/11 life to appear on screens. And if that’s not surprise enough, you’ll be dumbfounded to learn that it’s directed by the same guy responsible for the Ashton Kutcher comedy Dude, Where’s My Car? “I started out in New York,” says Danny Leiner, who went from directing Time Expired, his 1992 indie with Edie Falco and John Leguizamo, to the stoner slapstick of Dude and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. “All of a sudden, everyone knew me as the broad-comedy guy.”

But in early 2002, Leiner caught a few one-acts about anxious, repressed New Yorkers by Sam Catlin, a New York playwright similarly displaced in Los Angeles. Soon, the two began to develop a series of interlocking stories about their home city. “At first, it was a series of one-acts set on different streets: Mulberry Street, 18th Street, and so on,” says Catlin. “The 9/11 concept came much later—and then, I just wasn’t interested in anything didactic.”

“We just couldn’t avoid it,” explains Leiner, on a phone in the Los Angeles studio where he’s racing to dub in an entirely new score. “I never wanted to do anything straight about 9/11, but we just couldn’t stop thinking about it, so it became more about how people dealt with life after 9/11, as opposed to the event itself.”

Three and a half years after the attacks, the agitprop puppet shows, quickie tributes, and Giuliani biopics have faded away. In their place have come Denis Leary’s drama about firemen, Rescue Me, and signs of serious literary response: Jonathan Safran Foer, Ian McEwan, and Frederic Beigbeder have all released 9/11-themed novels in recent months. In this context, Leiner and Catlin decided to evoke the atmosphere of the aftermath, but with only one explicit mention: the bells that rang on the attack’s first anniversary. The completed script never mentions Bush, terrorists, Michael Moore, Fox News, or even September 11 by name. But the characters’ short fuses, glum moods, and crying jags couldn’t be explained without it. “We didn’t have to say anything explicit,” says Leiner. “We tried out a little title card, SEPTEMBER 2002, and it had this amazing effect on people who watched the film; it changed everything.”

In that context, when a kid uses an inhaler, you think, Downtown air quality. When the lights flicker in a stalled elevator and the passengers stand silently, you know they’re trying hard not to worry about The Next Attack. “Producers who saw the script wanted us to make 9/11 more obvious,” says Catlin, but they resisted.

Leiner went fishing with the script and a budget of less than $1 million, but quickly hooked a terrific ensemble. “I had some trepidation—I was worried it would be this ‘New York was victimized’ kind of thing,” says Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays a high-end cake decorator struggling with her rival (Edie Falco). “But the script was talking about 9/11 in the way that we all were sort of thinking about it, after some months passed—in a way that’s almost unconscious.”The film features Tony Shalhoub as a strange therapist, Olympia Dukakis as an elderly woman in Coney Island, Judy Greer and Tom McCarthy (director of The Station Agent) as the parents of a troubled child, and Stephen Colbert as their son’s principal. Two Bollywood veterans—Naseeruddin Shah and Sharat Saxena—appear as security guards from Queens. Even Tony Kushner has a cameo. And, yes, many of these roles are funny.

“I knew people would see me as a comedy guy doing this serious film,” Leiner says, “but New Yorkers are funny people.”

If the film’s humor is risky, so is the tempered optimism Leiner threads through the stories and announces in his title, The Great New Wonderful. In the film, almost every character fumbles with repressed rage, or sadness—but also makes some kind of progress out from under the trauma. It’s a delicate observation that risks silver-lining sentimentality but doesn’t succumb to it.

The film’s closing and opening shots catch Leiner’s tentative optimism. The first, filmed from Liberty Island, pans from left to right over a barely recognizable lower Manhattan skyline—from such a long distance that the buildings are abstracted on the horizon. The last shot pans over the same skyline from right to left: a second look at lower Manhattan. A little closer this time, but still distant and slightly strange. Somewhere down there, Leiner’s film will premiere, just blocks from ground zero. “I’m a little scared, frankly,” says Leiner, who should be.

The First Great 9/11 Film?