Cinema Signal:
Lonely Planet New York City

by Beth Greenfield, Robert Reid

. "The Great New Wonderful"

It's July, and I guess it's time for another collection of slice of life stories about people who live in the Big Apple, New York City, Manhattan--as though the rest of the country shouldn't be allowed to forget what life on that island of fashion and finances is like. (See the somewhat awful and desperate "Heights").

This variation on the theme purports to be an analysis of post 9/11 feelings, denials and effects but, taken without that cue card, bears little direct or obvious relationship to the tragedy. It appears to be another gloomy collection of depression, disappointment and idiosyncratic behavior that passes for drama. Will we ever get a portrait of New York life that doesn't try to generate drama out of disfunction and despair? Not as long as the literary geniuses who put such things together equate art with angst. Dostoevsky casts a shadow as big as a skyscraper.

Films like this come off to me also as make work projects for local actors who are ever-ready for a bit of ensemble playing. Not that all present need the work. Tony Shalhoub probably had to fit it into a very tight schedule. But that's where popularity and stardom stop. Even Maggie Gyllenhaal probably had a hole in her schedule. Good thing. She radiates the brightest light into these episodes.

Starting with the one most suggestively about 9/11, Dr. Trabulous (Tony Shalhoub) is a psychologist who utilizes his unique insights to unearth what he has pre-determined to be the buried rage of an ordinary man (Jim Gaffigan) who witnessed an (undefined) office tragedy. And, he's not above implanting thoughts and fears into his vict... uh, patient. The unspecificity about which office is being referred to is apparently meant to make us understand the significance by way of parallel abstraction. This sequence is most disturbing in depicting the sort of powerful tyranny a psychologist is allowed to exert on non-voluntary but impressionable subjects as though they're emotional policemen appointed by a higher authority.

Getting to the episode that gives the film its title, Emme Keeler (Maggie Gyllenhaal, "Secretary") is a highly competitive proprietor of The Great New Wonderful, a leading purveyor of designer pastries to the New York society set. Her purpose in life is to elevate her status by beating out her primary rival, NY's reigning Queen of Cake (Edie Falco). Character aside, she's the single reason to see this movie. Her screen command by way of personality and captivating blue eyes is worth the price of admission. See her also in a full starring role we think worthy of an Oscar nomination, "Sherrybaby."

In a case of parents struggling against the reality of a 10-year old son who has turned into an overweight, antisocial bully, Allison & David Burbage (Judy Greer, Tom McCarthy) are into utter denial at the expense of their marriage.

Meanwhile, two security guards, Avi and Satish (Naseerudin Shah, Sharat Saxena), fellow immigrants and best friends, travel around the city casually observing and evaluating contemporary America. One fashions himself a ladies' man while the other has all the physical attributes of a professional hit man. Their antics and philosophizing comes closest to humor in the great new wonderful conception.

Finally (but equally intercut), Judy Berman (Olympia Dukakis) is a woman of routine in a marriage that has long since lost its purpose except for sharing the same apartment. When she reconnects with another man who is a tie to common childhood memories, new possibilities appear to be opening up for her. They do, but in an unexpected manner.

Better character-connection would inject this well photographed (Harlan Bosmajian, cinematographer) episodic journey around the island with a higher level of dramatic justification. We get the load of negativity from director Danny Leiner, a Brooklyn native, his writer Sam Catlin and his very skilled cast. They've given us something for New Yorkers, something that passes for satire on the human condition, something for the arthouse. Relevance is in the eye of the beholder.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
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Maggie Gyllenhaal is Emme Keeler.
Will she ever to be the doyenne of society cake?
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