Lauded after his 1994 debut "The Brothers McMullen" as a potential Woody Allen for the reflectively cynical generation, writer-director-actor Edward Burns may truly begin living up to that label with "Sidewalks of New York," a sardonic yet hopeful love letter to the difficulties and dilemmas of the Manhattan mating game.
Structured around on-the-street interviews with its characters, the picture is a compound parable of crossing paths in the messy love lives of half a dozen Gotham denizens, starting with a cocksure young TV producer played by Burns himself.
Recently kicked out by his long-term, live-in girlfriend, Burns clicks with a pretty, polemic schoolteacher (Rosario Dawson) at a video store when they butt heads over the only copy of a movie. Meanwhile, Dawson's sad-sack ex-husband (David Krumholtz), a doorman and wannabe rocker who never got over their break-up, plays puppy dog to a button-cute, 19-year-old waitress (Brittany Murphy) until she agrees to go out with him. But the esteem-impaired girl is already sleeping with a manipulative, misogynistic father figure (Stanley Tucci), whose neglected, naive but rapidly wising-up, Upper East Side wife (Heather Graham) is a real estate agent who happens to be helping Burns find a new place to live.
A work of small cinematic gestures, smart dialogue and sublimely human performances, "Sidewalks" thrives on its spontaneity and its personalities as the characters expose their sexual histories through interviews, and their notions of romance -- good and bad -- through their actions.
This isn't a movie in which players pair off for a happily-ever-after last reel. It's too authentically complicated on the psychological front for that sort of thing. Graham's ingrained halcyon idealism holds her back from leaving her husband. Tucci, in turn, feeds his ravenous ego with the affections of vulnerable young women like Murphy, yet he balks at the very thought of divorce. "I have a very European attitude toward marriage," he rationalizes in his face-time segments while being transparently insecure to a pathetic degree.
Murphy gives the film's breakout performance as a spirited but screwed-up girl, uncomfortably on the verge of outgrowing the hang-ups that have taught her to trade on her sexuality. It's marvelous to see her finally given the chance to sink those considerable acting chops into a character that isn't institutionalized, a la "Don't Say a Word" and "Girl Interrupted."
(Then there's Dennis Farina, stealing a couple scenes as Burns' boss, an aging Lothario sodden in cheap confidence and expensive cologne.)
Everyone in "Sidewalks" has such layered internal conflicts -- a testament to the actors' understanding of their characters' souls and psyches, and to Burns' growth as a writer and director. Each of his films ("McMullen," "She's the One," "No Looking Back") have been more layered and mature than the last -- and without ever losing their essential earnestness or their very dry sense of humor.
This time around the comedy manifests itself in ways that are uniquely, ironically, fondly, 100-percent New York. Passersby flip-off the camera during man-on-the-street Q&As with the characters. When Murphy says she's from Iowa, the born-and-raised Manhattan-centric Krumholtz replies, "I went to Atlanta once."
Burns is so adept at capturing the big-village spirit of the city -- not only with these incidents but also with his characters' cadences and mannerisms, and even with the background din of unlooped audio from location shooting -- that "Sidewalks" feels in many ways like an enduring portrait of a time and place (2001 Manhattan) that was unforgettable even before September 11. This feeling is so vivid throughout the film that when the World Trade Center appears over Burns' shoulder during some of his characters' interviews, instead of begetting a distracting jolt of sadness it inspires a warm, congruous sentimentality, not unlike the sensation of opening a Christmas card with a photo from a old friend you miss dearly.
Burns, of course, could not have known when he was shooting these scenes how much additional meaning they'd take on by the time the film was released. But the very fact that they add something indefinable to the movie's essence goes to show that -- like Woody Allen -- Burns has an innate understanding of the heart of New York City.