The world is run by fear, my friend
ow did you lose your virginity?” This is the first question asked of faux-interviewees in Edward Burns’ faux-documentary-style romantic paean to the city he loves, Sidewalks of New York. It’s an arresting way to start a movie, even if the answers are familiar—in high school, in college, in a car, in a whorehouse with a girl named Cherry Pie. Actually, what’s most arresting is the city that surrounds them, the streets so busy with traffic and preoccupied passersby, the characters’ concerns seem so naïve and sweet, so pre-11 September. In fact, Burns’s film was scheduled to open in mid-September, pushed back to show “appropriate” respect and released to celebrate the city as it was.
This context makes Sidewalks instantly nostalgic; its smallness, its limitations and annoyances, make a peculiar sense. The characters, naïve and nattering, exist in a perversely and suddenly pristine moment, fixated on their efforts to find love, sex or self-reaffirming reflections of themselves. Sidewalks is what it sounds like: a Woody Allen movie. It’s a better one than Woody Allen himself has made in a while, borrowing heavily from Husbands and Wives in attitude and technique, but it’s still a Woody Allen movie.
As it begins, Tommy (Burns), a producer at (the fictional) Entertainment This Week, is kicked out of his girlfriend’s apartment (he wants kids, she doesn’t, which lays out his earnestness if not exactly his sensitivity, right off). Lucky for him, Tommy is invited to stay with his mentor in work and romance, Carpo (Dennis Farina), who offers the following advice: “Nothing heals a broken heart faster than a fresh piece of ass.” And voila: at the local video store (actually, Mrs. Hudson’s), Tommy and sixth-grade teacher Maria (Rosario Dawson) meet cute, as both are trying to rent Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In other words, a first date is inevitable, and for this event, Carpo suggests that Tommy put cologne on his testicles, counsel that the apparently intelligent Tommy inexplicably takes without question. Maria is suitably alarmed at this and besides that, a little skittish, being recently divorced from doorman/musician Benjamin (David Krumholtz). He’s currently pursuing Ashley (Brittany Murphy), an NYU student/waitress originally from Iowa, who is currently bedding dentist Griffin (Stanley Tucci), who is married to real estate agent Annie (Heather Graham), who is showing apartments to and flirting with Tommy.
This roundelay (with appropriate homaging to Max Ophul’s La Ronde) involves repeated efforts to define love, commitment, deceit, levels of authentic New Yorkness (“bridge and tunnel” vs. upper East Side), obsession, and oh, I don’t know, availability (Griffin tells Ashley he is “technically” available, as he has an “understanding”; she cleverly retorts, is this understanding “between you and your wife or you and your dick?”). When asked by the anonymous interviewer to define the word “cheat,” most everyone has a sad story (except Griffin, for whom cheating is a masculine right). Where Tommy laments the loss of love that precedes cheating, and Ben sees it as a function of age (if you’re too young, you can’t help yourself), Annie has a more philosophical take on it: “People cheat because they’re afraid. The world is run by fear, my friend.”
While such trivial pronouncements and the predictable situations that generate them tend to be tedious and self-important, the film clicks along with Frank Prinzi’s dynamic handheld camerawork, documentary editor David Greenwald’s styley jumpcuts, and the terrific de-lyricized Cake soundtrack. Also to its credit, most all the movie’s characters have unsympathetic moments (and Griffin, obviously, has many), and these are the film’s most compelling. Still, and even with its unanticipated, insta-documentish relevance, Sidewalks of New York offers only slight insights to go with its smart surface.