Love on a two-way street

Ed Burns and Heather Graham in <i>Sidewalks of New York</i>: Books. Coffee cups. Nope, no Shaolin in butt jumble.

Ed Burns and Heather Graham in Sidewalks of New York: Books. Coffee cups. Nope, no Shaolin in butt jumble.

Rated 3.0

Before playing opposite Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan and Robert De Niro in Fifteen Minutes, Edward Burns wrote, directed and starred in three independent films that plumb the winding, clogged arteries of personal relationships. His two wry romantic comedies (The Brothers McMullen, She’s the One) are variations on similar themes. They address the idiosyncrasies of passion, lust, commitment and male bonding. His subsequent melancholy drama (No Looking Back) explores the possibility of resurrecting a failed romance. All three films feature vivid characters, credible dialogue and candid observations on affairs of the heart and loin.

Burns successfully returns to the lighter side of human entanglement with Sidewalks of New York. He shot the film in 17 days on the streets of New York City. After watching Steven Spielberg use the handheld camera so cost-effectively and with such impact on Private Ryan, Burns adopted the technique to not only meet his low budget but also establish a compelling sense of intimacy, immediacy and movement.

Scenes in which an unseen interviewer asks questions and gets provocative answers from a half-dozen characters are intertwined with scenes in which we peer into their lives. This gives the film an investigative framework for such questions as: “When did you lose your virginity?” “Is it love or sex that leaves us confused?” and “What do you think about intercourse on the first date?” It also allows room for the characters to interact and talk about such topics as the reasons people stay married, infidelity (“Is this an understanding between you and your wife or you and your dick?”), obsessions and hygiene (“Put some cologne on your balls. Women love it. Makes them think you care.”).

We meet Tommy (Burns), a producer for TV’s Entertainment This Week who grew up in Queens. He gets dumped by his live-in girlfriend and re-enters the singles game with slick show host and seasoned seducer Carpo (Police Story’s Dennis Farina) as his temporary roommate and mentor. Tommy begins to date Maria (Rosario Dawson), an Italian-Puerto Rican grammar school teacher from Staten Island and survivor of a disastrous teen marriage.

Maria is hounded by her estranged husband Benjamin (David Krumholtz), a doorman-songwriter who soon transfers his affections to Ashley, a waitress-student from Iowa (Brittany Murphy). Ashley is having an affair with married dentist Griffin (Stanley Tucci) whose wife Annie (Heather Graham) begins showing vacant apartments to Tommy. The circular story’s noose begins to tighten as couples connect and disconnect, and Annie’s suspicions that her arrogant husband is cheating escalate.

This daisy chain of people and events covers much the same ground as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan. Where Allen over-intellectualizes, complains and dishes out persona and shtick, Burns muses and speculates, and dispenses personality and earthy humor. Allen’s films are funnier and more barbed. Burns’ films are more compassionate and tolerant of life’s incongruities and potholes. They are not transcendental but do leave lasting impressions and illustrate the conflicts of reality and romantic idealism.

Farina is excellent as the character most deserving a kick to the crotch (“Tell him how many women I porked,” he says to his female assistant. “Enough to make every woman sick to her stomach,” she responds.). Tucci gives the dentist with decayed morals just the right dash of elusive humanity (“We talk a little bit, we have sex, and then I go. I guess that’s a little sad.”).

Murphy shines bright following her recent breakout performance in Don’t Say a Word, and the other characters all feel perfectly cast.

Burns establishes Tommy as an appealing character and captures the rhythm of New York City. His film is both cautionary and optimistic. It’s about the allure of sex, being our own worst enemy, and the backed-up semen that clouds men’s brains. It’s about people searching for and having trouble finding a solid, happy relationship. But, like Tommy says, “Who knows? Maybe that’s part of the fun.”