New Yakkers

Edward Burns's Sidewalks does more talking than walking.

Sidewalks of New York
Vanity fare: Edward Burns, Sidewalks' writer, director, and star.
Vanity fare: Edward Burns, Sidewalks' writer, director, and star.
This is the true story of seven people (Tommy! Annie! Ashley! Maria! Griffin! Carpo! And Benjamin!) picked to live in a city and have their lives changed. Find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real. The Real World: Sidewalks of New York.

If you came across Edward Burns's new film on cable TV and didn't recognize any of the actors, chances are you'd assume it was part of MTV's massive reality TV franchise: Handheld cameras follow the protagonists around in their daily routines (during the course of which they try to find love and little else), and in between we get confessional interviews to the camera. If it isn't The Real World, then surely it must be Road Rules. Or Tough Enough. Or Unzipped (not technically a reality show, but shot like one). Or that new dating show where the contestant dismisses one of his or her two dates at the end of the night. Too bad it isn't quite funny enough to be mistaken for Jackass.

Which isn't to say it's a bad film, per se. The acting is fine, and the characters are believable. It simply brings nothing new to the table and thus has little reason to exist beyond writer-director Edward Burns's desire to make a film because he can. The material's so familiar, it feels like a well-worn theme-park ride, the Matterhorn of romantic comedies. Look, over to your left, it's the young hottie involved with a married man she actually thinks will leave his wife! Over on the right, if you look closely, you'll catch a glimpse of the sensitive nebbish who's trying to act tough! And up ahead, the good-looking guy who just happens to be incredibly unlucky in love! Yes, ladies, he's still single!

The "plot" of the film involves several interlocking "stories," all of which can be summed up thusly: Person X seeks love from Person Y, who may or may not be already unhappily involved with Person Z, who seeks love from Person A, and so forth. Ultimate point being that, as big a city as New York seems to be, it's a small world after all, which brings us back to the theme-park ride metaphor.

Tommy (Burns, doing his standard Ben Affleck-with-actual-talent routine), having been kicked out by his girlfriend and moved in with aging lothario Carpo (Dennis Farina, stealing the show), sleeps with schoolteacher Maria (Rosario Dawson), whose ex-husband is an aggressively nerdy yet sensitive doorman-musician named Ben (David Krumholtz). When Ben isn't trying to win back his ex-wife, he's hitting on pretty waitress Ashley (Brittany Murphy), who's having an unhappy affair with married dentist Griffin (Stanley Tucci), a pompous type who ends every question in "or . . .?" Griffin's wife is Annie (Heather Graham), who happens to be the real estate agent who shows Tommy around a vacant apartment, where they bond over an argument about what constitutes a real New Yorker, thereby kicking off a chemistry that just has to be right, especially since Graham and Burns dated in real life.

In what appears to be a vain attempt to make the movie feel like a documentary, all the participants at times address an unseen interviewer on the nature of love and so forth, offering amazing observations such as "Men and women are very different when it comes to sex." These segments feel like a cheap way to introduce the characters without showing us anything about them, and they would have been the weakest links of the film anyway, but the fact that Burns's Tommy is interviewed on a rooftop with the World Trade Center as a backdrop doesn't help. Tommy's observations are as irrelevant as he is, but doubly so in the face of a disaster Burns the director unintentionally reminds us of at all times. Though the film is low-budget enough that a Zoolander-style digital deletion would not have been an option, excising these segments would have improved the film in any case, and Burns should have done so.

The performers do as well as they can with the thin material, ultimately fashioning what should make for a great audition tape for something else. Particularly noteworthy is Farina, in the one role that's pure comic relief, loudly advocating the application of cologne to the scrotum and boasting that he left 500 women "baying at the moon." The elfin Murphy, meanwhile, having previously shone in either supporting or psychotic roles (or both, as in Prophecy II), gets to play straight leading lady here and does so with aplomb, while also giving Leelee Sobieski some competition for cinematic omnipresence.

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