Post-9/11 N.Y. Gets Crash ed

‘The camera pans the gap-toothed Manhattan skyline where the World Trade Center used to be. The rigid smile is still welcome and wide, but a hole needs filling. The Great New Wonderful is an impressive new film with a small budget and a big sensibility populated by New Yorkers with their own cavities in need of crowns and bridges. It tells five stories of diverse people who share one thing in common: They are all still coping with the aftermath of trauma, one year after the attacks of 9/11.

These are people you see every day, in the supermarket, subway and gym, but never know. They never meet, they don’t even live in the same neighborhood, yet the bond they share is binding and real. They will be forever connected by the invisible cords of a shared experience they can’t explain. Emme Keeler (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a ruthless, competitive creator of designer pastries and owner of a trendy shop called the Great New Wonderful. Emme’s life focuses on destroying and replacing her arch-nemesis, a celebrity Cake Queen and Martha Stewart clone named Safarah Polsky (Edie Falco).

Judy Hillerman (Olympia Dukakis) is a miserable woman who once dreamed of being an artist but somehow settled for a listless marriage and an empty life as an unappreciated homemaker for a couch potato who rarely even bothers to speak to her in words of two syllables. Judy’s dull routine of crossword puzzles and social gatherings at a local senior-citizen center ignites a new spark when she runs into an old friend (Dick Latessa) with a zest for life, music and travel in his retirement years. Sandie, a depressed office worker (the first-cabin comedian Jim Gaffigan in a dramatic role) who lost several colleagues on 9/11, masks his self-denial in a forced, nervous smile and the pretense of superficial cheerfulness and rationalization, until an obnoxious psychologist named Dr. Trabulous (Tony Shalhoub) goads him into an explosion of the rage he’s been hiding.

Avi and Satish (Naseeruddin Shah and Sharat Saxena) are a squabbling pair of immigrant security guards who cruise the city between jobs observing the odd citizens of their adopted country with diametrically opposed opinions. Allison and David Burbage (Judy Greer and Tom McCarthy) are struggling to hold their marriage together while devoting all of their time and energy to a withdrawn, antisocial and overweight 10-year-old son who retreats deeper into his own inner world of fantasy and violence.

This is another of those ensemble pieces like Crash, Traffic and Heights, in which ordinary lives plod through each day and intersect only occasionally, in theater lobbies and elevators. It takes skill to hold an audience’s interest in so much diversity, but writer Sam Catlin and director Danny Leiner pull all of the right strings.

While Emme is auditioning her lavender-tiered party cakes to rich, bored society kids, her rival makes the cover of New York magazine with her white-chocolate ganache. While Sandie at last releases his panic and assaults his shrink with a chair, the Burbages are confronted with some cruel truths about their asthmatic, obese and mentally unbalanced son, who spends most of his time in suspension for savage attacks on his schoolmates.

Using the psychological impact of 9/11 as a basis for its characters’ need to stand still, reflect and then move on, the film shows what happens when the shock wears off and real life returns. Some of the resolutions in these human relationships are subtle, others radical. But instead of the fragmented impression that most intertwining ensemble movies leave of painting by numbers, the short stories here move honestly to their conclusions. You are never saddled with the sort of calculated precision that forces you to mutter “I saw it coming” or “I told you so.” Everything in The Great New Wonderful reinforces the subtextual theme that life, in tragedy and grief, always finds its balance, even in death. For an independent film, it is quite a rewarding big-time experience.

Mother’s Love

Loverboy is a slight but intensely acted (by Kyra Sedgwick), sensitively directed (by her husband Kevin Bacon) and well-meaning issue-oriented exploration of the overrated (and humanly impossible) cliché called “unconditional love.” It is also deeply disturbing. Here is the study of a passionate, dedicated single mother who tries to kill her perfect 6-year-old son not from too much abuse, but from too much love. When smothering him with affection doesn’t work, she locks the garage and tries carbon-monoxide poisoning. By the time this depressing movie ends, you may want to kill yourself.

I’m so tired of idiot movies about computers, misunderstood aliens, comic-book superjerks and kids trying to get laid that I want to applaud any serious attempt to bring a real social issue to the screen and award it an A for effort, whether it’s any good or not. But even though Loverboy is only 86 minutes long, as it wore on, I wore out.

Blame the material, not the actors. Despite an impressive cast of relatives and famous faces in every walk-on, culled from the Bacons’ family and friends, the story never really gets jump-started. Ms. Sedgwick plays Emily, an unconventional woman shut out as a child by freaky parents (Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei), whose oversexed obsession with each other left no room for a midget intruder. So she grew up relying solely on herself for emotional gratification. Never yearning for home or husband, all she ever wanted in life was a baby. When artificial insemination failed, Emily embarked on a quest for the über-sperm donor, sleeping with every chromosome desirable enough to produce a perfect baby.

The alpha male who poaches the egg is Campbell Scott, as a handsome businessman named Paul who picks her up during a convention in the hotel elevator. She never sees him again, but the son she names after her one-night stand turns out to be a once-in-a-lifetime poster child for Wheaties. Declaring war on Dr. Spock, she eschews normalcy, conformity and fitting in for fantasy, arrogance and eccentricity. Unfortunately, this means no school, no playgrounds, no friends, no kindergarten, no birthday parties. Baby Paul fills Emily’s every emotional need. She even calls him “Loverboy.” When neighborhood children encroach, she moves away to an out-of-season beach house on the ocean where they can be alone together.

But Paul is beginning to show alarming signs of rebellion. When he takes to a friendly geology student (Matt Dillon) who introduces him to carpentry and fishing, she grows more irritable and anxious by the hour. Clearly the kid needs the adult companionship of a father figure, an intrusion that threatens her career to raise Loverboy in her own image, as an exceptional iconoclast safe from the influences of the outside world. As school age dawns, new friends and teachers (Blair Brown, Oliver Platt, Melissa Errico) make new impressions with fresh opinions and ideas as Mom gradually slips farther away from reality, unable to adjust to the child’s transition, and becomes unhinged. Orphaned by unstable parents herself, she does the only thing she knows how to do and turns the key in the ignition.

I won’t spoil the ending, but aside from the fine acting, few rewards lie in store for anyone passing out smile buttons. The film’s non-linear style is another challenge. The action jarringly intercuts multiple flashbacks with such abandon that at times you don’t know where you are in the story or where you ever were in the first place. Sometimes you see the adolescent Emily being kissed on the mouth by Sandra Bullock, playing a neighbor woman with a brain-damaged son. These distractions make less sense to logic and narrative than to the loyalty of Kevin Bacon’s friends. In other roles, you can spot his son, daughter, brother-in-law and even the family dog. They don’t save the film, but they’re amusing to have around.

Kyra Sedgwick is fascinating to watch. A multitude of complex expressions crosses her face like cumulus clouds, shifting in formations of subtlety, poignancy and schizophrenia that are as unsettling as they are heart-rending. Dominic Scott Kay, her apple-cheeked co-star, is an accomplished and very grown-up wunderkind who happens to be temporarily masquerading in the body of a 6-year-old tot. He’s beguiling, but as a child dragged to the dark side by a mother from hell, he doesn’t have much fun, and neither will you.

Audra’s Heirs

The cabaret season nears its air-conditioned end with joy and harmony at the Algonquin. Jessica Molaskey, the seasoned actress-singer who blends jazz, pop and show tunes in a tasty menu of pleasant surprises, is holding forth in the Oak Room through July 1. Expect fireworks early.

She calls her repertoire “limbo songs” because they fit into no particular category. From a cool, coaxing version of “Walkin’ After Midnight,” one of Patsy Cline’s signature songs, to a really sweet, relaxed ballad arrangement of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” juxtaposed with the melodic lines of “P.S. I Love You,” she mixes the anxiety of youth with the been-through-the-wringer angst of love on the rocks effortlessly and refreshingly, without pretense. Nothing coiffed, fluffed or over-arranged here; no sign of an art director. Just music, and plenty of it, delivered with the casual self-assurance, intelligent phrasing and genuine wit that make audiences feel comfortable in her presence. Being cradled in the warm yet swinging guitar chords of her husband, John Pizzarelli, doesn’t hurt a girl’s musical impact, either. Rounding out an impeccable trio that also includes his brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass and pianist Larry Fuller, John’s subtle voice joins Jessica’s center-stage delivery on some of the act’s vocal duos that can only be described as thrilling. On a classy Jobim bossa nova that morphs into a dreamy counter-melody of Billy Joel’s “Summer, Highland Falls,” Mr. and Mrs. Pizzarelli undulate like a pair of sun-tanned hips.

All is not perfect. There are three tone-deaf, gruesomely depressing pretenders to the Sondheim throne on the New York theater scene—Jason Robert Brown, Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael John LaChiusa—who, though they have never written anything close to a commercial hit, or even one song anyone can hum, have been “adopted” by singers who should have better sense, not to mention more sophisticated musical tastes. Audra McDonald is their godmother. Now Ms. Molaskey is falling into the same bottomless trap, singing art songs by these phonies that are naïve, pointless, confusing and a big waste of valuable time. Fortunately, she is always wonderful, even when the songs are not. With enough Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Ira Gershwin and Vincent Youman classics to please, you can bet 97 percent of Ms. Molaskey’s act is as good as it gets. Get there by July 1 and see what I mean.