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Where the Sidewalk Ends, Love Begins

Graham proves her worth in Burns’ date movie for jaded lovers

By Sandra M. Chung

Written and Directed by Ed Burns

Starring Ed Burns, Rosario Dawson, Heather Graham, Stanley Tucci, Brittany Murphy, David Krumholtz

Rated R

Sidewalks of New York is about six beautiful actors portraying everyday, middle-class New Yorkers -- none of whom die, blow anything up, overcome odds to save the planet, discover a government conspiracy, or realize anything profound. In short, it’s a well-made film that will neither shock you nor change your life.

Writer/director Ed Burns’ attempt to make a “real” movie about love, sex, and relationships takes the form of a mock documentary minus narration. The camera follows the six lead characters as they stumble through their interwoven lives. Clips of “interviews” with the six reveal their differing thoughts and feelings on love, sex, and relationships.

The New Yorkers begin the movie in three couples, and through the course of the plot, rearrange themselves into three new couples. Maria (Rosario Dawson, Josie and the Pussycats) is an attractive kindergarten teacher who has been living a guarded, solitary life since her divorce from Ben (David Krumholtz). Tommy (Burns) entices her back into the dating world, if only temporarily. In the meantime, Ashley (Brittany Murphy, Clueless) and Griffin (Stanley Tucci) find their forbidden relationship swiftly turning sour as disillusioned trophy wife Annie (Heather Graham) notices his suspicious behavior and begins to put two and two together. Add Ben’s frequent visits to the coffee shop where Ashley works and Tommy’s need for a new piece of real estate to call home, and the passage of time takes care of the rest.

Sidewalks is essentially Annie Hall without the self-deprecating humor of Woody Allen. Its humor is mostly subtle, complex, and situational. Carpo (Dennis Farina), a shameless womanizer, is responsible for most of the movie’s comic relief, sheltering the newly homeless Tommy and offering him relationship advice that ranges in character from hilariously slimy to soundly logical.

Burns’ script is intelligent without being obscure, though noticeably skewed towards the male perspective. It focuses on developing the six main characters at the expense of minor characters and superfluous action. The plot is a simple circle: Tommy is kicked out by his girlfriend and meets Maria, who used to be married to Ben, who falls in love with Ashley, who has an affair with Griffin, who is married to Annie, who is Tommy’s real estate agent. The tried-and-true-relationship-woes format adds up to a blandly predictable denouement: at the end of the movie everyone ends up where he or she deserves to be.

With such a mundane setting and familiar storyline, wise casting choices were the crucial rescue of Burns’ vision. Fortunately, the casting director delivers. Graham gives a surprisingly competent performance, considering the hefty proportion of her prior film roles which fall into few categories other than eye candy. Her Annie is aloof and cerebral, with a secret romantic vulnerability. Krumholtz pulls off another mixed-up, endearingly clumsy character akin to his turn as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sidekick in the teen-targeted Shakespeare adaptation Ten Things I Hate About You. Murphy, another refugee from the adolescent movie world, dusts off her ditzy Clueless character and adds light touches of maturity and worldliness, while her onscreen lover, Tucci, is superbly convincing as the possessive, philandering dentist.

At first glance, this film seems to be nothing more than a manifestation of Burns’ narcissism; it’s as if he found his own life fascinating enough to dramatize it and expect the world to clamor to see the movie version. The unnecessary soundtrack attempts and fails at fashionable edginess with short, lyricless clips off the Cake album Prolonging the Magic. However, the quality of the acting, script, and cinematography partially make up for whatever self-indulgence was responsible for the film’s existence.

Sidewalks has anything but broad appeal. Burns’ film demands a thinking moviegoer with a genuine interest in social psychology. A piece that compares and contrasts Venus and Mars in the earthly city of New York has the potential to seriously interest only people who make a habit of pondering the fascinatingly complex behavior of our sexually dimorphic species. If the above description doesn’t apply to you, you’d be better off watching When Harry Met Sally.