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Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Love 'n' lust in the concrete jungle

Sidewalks of New York

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Edward Burns
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

"In a city of 8 million people, what are the odds the perfect two will meet?" That's the question posed by the tag-line for "Sidewalks of New York," but when the film's director/screenwriter/star Edward Burns is dating his leading lady, Heather Graham, the smart bet lies with romantic optimism.

News photo
Edward Burns and Heather Graham in "Sidewalks of New York"

"Sidewalks of New York" doesn't deny such expectations, but it delves deep into the missteps and mind games of the dating game before delivering that Happily Ever After. Burns, best known as a director for his 1995 indie hit "The Brothers McMullen," offers up half-a-dozen characters -- married and single, falling in and out of love -- to explore the question "Is it love or sex that makes us confused in our relationships?"

First up is Tommy Reilly (Burns), a 32-year-old local-boy-made-good from Queens, with a career producing an infotainment TV show. He's gotten the boot from his lover -- whom he'd just moved in with -- over irreconciliable differences: He wants kids, and she doesn't, period. Now he's moved in with Carpo (Dennis Farina), the host of Tommy's TV show and an old lech who claims to have slept with more than 500 women. His advice to Tommy isn't exactly golden: "There's nothing better for a broken heart than a fresh piece of booty," he advises, adding that Tommy shouldn't forget "cologne on the balls -- it shows you've got class."

Tommy hesitantly moves toward a date with Maria (Rosario Dawson), a twentysomething schoolteacher whom he chats up at a neighborhood video shop. She's somewhat interested, but also on the rebound from a long-term relationship with bellboy and wannabe rock guitarist Benjamin (David Krumholtz), a sweet-looking guy who's nevertheless turned into a bit of a stalker. Benjamin made the classic guy mistake of not desiring Maria when he was with her -- he even hit on her coworkers -- but finding himself unable to live without her. His reason for fooling around? Maria was the first and only woman he'd had sex with. Understandable, yes, but a good excuse? Not for Maria.

Mirroring Benjamin is Griffin (Stanley Tucci), a 40-year-old dentist who's cheating on his real-estate agent wife Annie, despite the fact that, well, she's Heather Graham! Griffin has what he calls "a European attitude to sex," which to him seems to allow one-hour lunchtime sexual trysts with a girl like 19-year-old student/waitress Ashley (Brittany Murphy). When Annie senses something wrong and complains that "we barely make love anymore," Griffin insists that "things slow down for everybody." To which Annie replies, "But I don't want that."

A reasonable enough expectation, and Annie's dilemma -- like those of all the characters in the film -- should resonate with many viewers. Annie is "an idealist" (as one friend dismisses her), smitten with the idea of love for one lover, and the belief that the flame should keep burning. Griffin, on the other hand, is a pragmatist -- or, perhaps, defeatist -- who's convinced that monogamy equals eventual boredom, and hence infidelity is a natural reaction. Is it, though? As Griffin's boss cuttingly asks him, "How many girls do you have to screw before you realize you can get laid?"

The film's at its best while exploring this gray area between physical and emotional needs, the infinite grades of distinction we all draw in weighing sex and intimacy in our relationships. Burns' tight script throws out every position, from the casual to the committed, and has them ricochet off each other with fairly amusing results. His strength is in creating dialogue that sounds more overheard than scripted; it's not hard to imagine hearing similar tales -- of fickle one-night-lovers who never return calls, or guys whose interest is only piqued when they're spurned -- from your own friends over a round of drinks.

Of course the downside of this is that such insights often seem like platitudes, never getting too deep. For example, Ashley may eventually fall for Benjamin, but the happy ending suggested by the script isn't necessarily likely; the perceptive viewer will note -- with no cues from the film -- that motor-mouthed Benjamin is as controlling and likely to verbally bludgeon his lover into submission as the more overt cretin, Griffin.

Ditto for the utter failure of Griffin: As the only bald guy in the film, you know he's gonna be the jerk, a Hollywood stereotype that sits uncomfortably next to handsome Burns' nice-guy perfection -- a role that he's generously scripted for himself.

Burns does give the film an appealingly "New Yawk" vibe, though, from his canny choice of representative characters from downtown and the boroughs, to the ambience of the streets. (The passersby in the background flipping off the camera seemed especially right.) Best of all, there's no somber pretense to any sort of post-9/11 relevance, as if a city of 8 million people -- not to mention New York cinema -- cannot exist beyond that terrible event. People always have and always will want to get laid and fall in love, or preferably both, and no tragedy will alter that.

"Sidewalks of New York" was written by Burns as he came out of a failed long-term relationship and filmed as he was falling back in love. Like "Singles" or "Sex in the City," its romantic obsessing will be sure to connect with those in similarly choppy waters, but couples enjoying smooth sailing may wonder whether it's all much ado about nothing.

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