With "She's The One" and "The Brothers McMullen", Ed Burns has always seemed to have a desire to be the Woody Allen of a new generation. Although "She's" was too feather-light to be memorable and its follow-up, "No Looking Back" was too moody, Burns has come up with his most accomplished and entertaining effort to date. It's not without some rough spots around the edges, but it's an otherwise intelligent and often quite funny picture that does a fine job exploring issues regarding sex, love, marriage and commitment without getting too heavy-handed or preachy.
The film stars Burns (back in fine, mildly sarcastic acting form) as Tommy, a producer on an Entertainment talk show (what I believe is a little shot at Burns's previous employment before he made "McMullen") who really would be happier writing. Tommy's just been kicked out of the house where he's been living with his girlfriend, so he moves in with his co-worker (Dennis Farina, in an extremely amusing performance), who gives him his advice about relationships.
Tommy stops by the video store to catch up on a movie for work and runs into Maria (Rosario Dawson of "Josie and the Pussycats"). They meet-cute over a movie that both of them need and it develops into what looks to be a pretty nice relationship. The only problem is that her ex-husband Ben (David Krumholtz of "Slums of Beverly Hills") still hangs out around her house in-between discussing and dreaming about his future as a musician. Waiting in a cafe one day, he catches the eye of a waitress named Ashley (a wonderfully tipsy and giggly performance from Brittany Murphy) who's involved with...Griffin (Stanley Tucci), who's currently married to Annie (Heather Graham). Last, but not least, Annie finds herself showing an apartment to Tommy. You get the idea, as many characters meet up with one another and find themselves linked.
But, aside from a few minor exceptions, the characters are very nicely realized and more importantly, feel real. The actors dial down their actorly touches, Burns keeps locations and costumes minimal and his usual cinematographer Frank Prinzi does a nice job launching the audience into the coversations in a handheld fashion that doesn't get too jarring, nor do the jumpcuts and other editing tricks that come into play. The on-the-street interviews with the characters that happen on occasion throughout the movie originally met with a negative reaction, but I warmed up to them as Burns often made wonderful use of them to push the story forward.
Burns also takes the arc into the film's more dramatic second half well, as he keeps events nicely peppered with the occasional touches of comedic relief. Speaking of comedic, Burns is one of the few directors aside from Kevin Smith who really have a fine idea how to use cursing. Although "Sidewalks" does certainly go into "R" rated territory, the dialogue's snappy and never tiring. Obviously, Burns must have had to have things locked down well in order to finish filming a picture that looks this technically professional in only a matter of 16 days.
All things considered, Burns really hasn't brought anything extrodinarily new to the table, but he's done an exceptionally good job in nearly every area of the presentation of the rather tired romantic comedy genre. He's made characters that we can care about and see as believable people who do and say things that don't seem cliched and brought enough wit and intelligence to the screenplay to make us laugh and care. I felt the film's wrap is a little too neat, but it doesn't entirely strain believability.
Although I'd thought that Burns would be treading over the same ground once again with "Sidewalks", he's ended up making not only one of the more entertaining films I've seen in 2001, but his smartest and sharpest effort to date.
"Sidewalks of New York" now opens on November 21, 2001.