Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen,She’s The One) wrote, produced, directed, and stars in Sidewalks of New York and he acquits himself in all four of those functions with admirable skill and professionalism. Sidewalks is intelligent and funny, a comedy with romance that should please a wide audience. It observes a varied group of New Yorkers as they struggle with contemporary urban relationships and the eternal issues of love, sex, commitment, and marriage.
Comparisons will inevitably be made to Woody Allen’s Husbands And Wives, in terms of style, structure, tone and subject matter. Both deal with a circle of people and their relationships. Both use a restless, sometimes handheld camera. Both make use of mock "interviews" of the characters, allowing a direct articulation of their feelings. But Sidewalks has its own viewpoint (a generation later than Allen’s) and its own sense of humor, though remaining within the broader category of that special brand of New York irony. That it took its form from a master is not a bad thing; Burns has created an homage to Allen.
Tommy Reilly (Burns) is 32 and financially successful, though not as the writer he would like to be. He recently broke up with a longtime girlfriend. In a video store he meets Maria Tedesco (Rosario Dawson), a schoolteacher on the fashionable east side (whose students’ weekly allowances are more than her monthly salary). Maria is divorced from Benjamin (David Krumholtz), a doorman and musician, who doggedly continues to pursue her in hopes of winning her back. But then Benjamin meets and woos Ashley (Brittany Murphy), a waitress in a coffee shop who is involved in an affair with Griffin (Stanley Tucci), a married man and the only genuine heel in the loop. Griffin’s wife, Annie (Heather Graham), is a real estate agent and she’s been showing apartments to…Tommy Reilly. La Ronde meets Husbands and Wives on the sidewalks of New York.
Burns skillfully interweaves these characters and explores the mores of sex, the degrees and kinds of neediness, the variety of ways in which they interact. It is a dialogue-driven film. Burns’ ear for the ways people talk is so accurate and the acting is so on the money that the film has a feeling of spontaneity, as if it was improvised–which is not the case. Sidewalks was tightly scripted.
The film was made in only sixteen days, but the brevity of the shooting schedule (and the small budget) don’t show in the end product. Edited for just the right length in each succeeding scene as the story follows the ensemble of players, Burns effectively uses jump cuts (surely the cutting technique du jour), giving an added sense of immediacy, as if real-life dialogue has been reduced to its essentials.
Performances by all the cast are strong, but it’s a good guess that Sidewalks will bring stardom to Brittany Murphy (Girl Interrupted, Drop Dead Gorgeous) whose slightly smoky voice, kohled eyes, and naive vulnerability create a new image for the contemporary ingenue. While she allows herself to be used, she learns from her experience and has the gumption to make changes. When Griffin tells her that he has "an understanding," she snaps back, "Is this an understanding between you and your wife or you and your dick?"
David Krumholtz (10 Things I Hate About You, Liberty Heights) will also win hearts with his portrayal of Benjamin–puppyish, needy, and also vulnerable, but never giving up hope–perfectly summed up in his line: "I think she likes me because she doesn’t seem to hate me."
Burns’ comedy is effective because the laughs are rooted in character. We’re not laughing at contrived slapstick situations or grossout nonsense, but at ourselves reflected in rounded and believable depictions of contemporary people, people we recognize. Pointed, upbeat, and very funny, Sidewalks of New York sets the standard for comedy in 2001.