The gifted Edward Burns takes a drastic misstep with this flimsy, whining relationship comedy that shares none of the charm that the writer/director/actor placed in his earlier work. It's troubling to see a once funny guy reduced to material as unappetizing as this.
Ben (David Krumholtz) is a doorman who is divorced from Maria (Rosario Dawson), who enjoyed a one night stand with Tommy (Edward Burns), who is flirting with his real estate agent Annie (Heather Graham), who is married to a philandering jerk named Griffin (Stanley Tucci), who is carrying on an affair with Ashley (Brittany Murphy, "Don't Say a Word") a waitress being romanced by Ben. They all live, love, and argue amidst the backdrop of New York City during a blustery fall season.
Some might view "Sidewalks Of New York" (IMDb listing) as a return to form for Burns. I see it as a cowardly leap backwards after he was scorched both critically and financially with his ambitious, yet poorly released drama "No Looking Back." It took me over two years (and three viewings) to notice the good points in "Back," but after seeing "Sidewalks," I don't see why Burns felt the need to retreat to the safe harbor of sex gags and criss-crossing relationships. Those elements served his prior pictures, "Brothers McMullen" and "She's The One," very well, but Burns was growing as a filmmaker at the time. He was just learning to experiment with characters, and not always strive for a happy ending. "Sidewalks" stunts all that with pedestrian plotting and rudimentary humor. Burns gets a little too easygoing this time out. He's repeating himself, and you can feel that in the film's pace and enthusiasm, as both are missing.
And why Burns would want to tread so heavily on Woody Allen territory is beyond me. This romantic-comedy-in-New York genre has been bled dry, yet Burns leaves no cutesy moments untouched. Whether it's characters who discuss painfully obvious "classic" rock albums in a record store (which sells only vinyl no less!), the "meet cute" between Tommy and Maria in a video store with both parties wanting to rent "Breakfast At Tiffany's," or the predictable argument about the snobbishness of the upper east side. It's just too weak for words. Many filmmakers, from Nora Ephron to Allen, have used and abused New York locals for so long now. Burns should have set his sights on a location more compelling ("Sidewalks Of Boise" perhaps?) than the same old New York City.
In casting, Burns is more successful than before. Murphy, Dawson, Krumholtz, and Burns himself are all winning in their slight roles; the first three actors making a rare appearance in something this even-tempered. Their delight in this change of pace is infectious, with Brittany Murphy proving once again just how valuable she is to current cinema. Co-stars Tucci and Graham are less pleasant. Tucci appears to own the patent on the creepy-bald-guy act, and Graham proves further just how bad an actress she really is. The saving grace of the film is Dennis Farina. In a small role as Tommy's egotistical boss, Farina is free to play around with his slimy charms and his rather ancient views on women. It's the most fun the film allows itself.
Edward Burns' next film is a sprawling Irish cop story called "Ash Wednesday." Thank the Lord. As painful as "Sidewalks Of New York" is to watch, at least I can be safe in the knowledge that Burns himself might have learned his lesson and is moving on to bigger and better ideas.
Filmfodder Grade: D+