An alternately funny and touching dramedy about marriage, fidelity, and finding the right person in a city of millions, "Sidewalks of New York" is the most assured and smart directorial effort of filmmaker-actor Edward Burns (1995's "The Brothers McMullen," 1996's "She's the One," 1998's "No Looking Back"). Heavily reminiscent of Woody Allen's oeuvre (particularly 1979's "Manhattan" and 1992's "Husbands and Wives"), the film is not quite an equal to that veteran's best work, but does a more than acceptable job at portraying true-to-life characters with real emotions and understandable flaws.
32-year-old Tommy (Edward Burns) is an "Entertainment Tonight"-style television producer who has just been thrown out of his apartment by a girlfriend. Without a place to stay, he seeks the aid of a realtor named Annie (Heather Graham), whom he starts to like despite her being involved in an unhealthy marriage with the philandering 39-year-old Griffin (Stanley Tucci). Griffin claims to love Annie, but, nonetheless, is cheating on her with 19-year-old Ashley (Brittany Murphy), a bright but confused coffee shop waitress/NYU student. With Ashley growing unsatisfied with her random motel trysts with the inconsiderate Griffin, she is charmed when one of her customers, Ben (David Krumholtz), takes a liking to her. As for Ben, he is recently divorced from Maria (Rosario Dawson), a young sixth-grade teacher who hasn't thought about starting a new relationship until she meets the desirable Tommy in a video store.
Intercut between many of the scenes are faux documentary interviews with all six of the central characters, as they relate their individual ideas, feelings, and histories about love and sex. While these segments could have come off as self-absorbed and superfluous in lesser hands, they actually enhance the viewer's understanding of where these people are coming from.
"Sidewalks of New York" is a perceptive and realistic glimpse into a handful of individuals' problematic love lives. All of the ideas have been treaded out on familiar ground in the past, but the screenplay, as written by Edward Burns, carries a pleasant flow that manages to be exact and on target with the way things are in the real world. The characters speak and act with the sort of authenticity rarely seen in films today, and the handheld camera approach makes for a very documentary-like experience.
Even if the writing and directing is superb, this type of character and dialogue-driven piece always sinks or swims with the actors involved. Director Burns has luckily gotten the casting exactly right; there isn't a weak link in all of its six major performers.
Edward Burns, who always stars in his own pictures, nicely plays Tommy as a man who has made a few missteps in his past with the opposite sex, but is now mature enough to want to have a serious relationship. As the frustrated Annie, a woman who has fooled herself for too long into believing that her marriage is a strong one, Heather Graham (2001's "From Hell
") is radiant and intuitive in her best performance, to date.
Rosario Dawson (2001's "Josie and the Pussycats
") is strongly effective as Maria, a 24-year-old grappling with whether she is ready, or even wants, a significant other at this stage in her life. In the one scuzzy part in the film, Stanley Tucci (2001's "America's Sweethearts
") is perfectly smarmy as the unfaithful, self-involved Griffin. Taking on his first adult movie role, David Krumholtz (1999's "10 Things I Hate About You
") is charmingly sweet as the somewhat naive, but always honest, Ben. Rounding out the cast is the always-luminous Brittany Murphy (2001's "Riding in Cars with Boys
"), one of the most talented young actresses working today in yet another delicious turn. Murphy's Ashley is an innocent and funny soul whose confusion and mistakes she effortlessly makes heartbreaking.
While the other subplots are always involving and intelligent, it is the idealistically beautiful love story that evolves between Ben and Ashley that gives "Sidewalks of New York" its real heart. Krumholtz and Murphy are delightful together, and their scenes are especially lovely to watch play out with the sort of unaffected naturalism magical movie romances are made of. You find yourself hoping for the best for nearly all of the characters, as "Sidewalks of New York" spins another example of why so many people are unequivocally attracted to the city that never sleeps.
©2001 by Dustin Putman