In a city of 8 million people, what are the odds the perfect two will meet?
Auteur Edward Burns (The Brothers Mcmullen) has clearly fashioned himself as a sort of Woody Allen for 30-something, non-nebbishy gentiles but, hey, I like him—probably because I'm a 30-something, non-nebbishy gentile. Sidewalks of New York is a little bit Manhattan and a bit more Husbands and Wives but with Burns' essential earnestness replacing Allen's postmodern self-consciousness, solipsism, and irony.
Facts of the Case
Sidewalks of New York employs a circular narrative structure in which we meet the characters via their relationships with one another. I tell you this up front because any plot description is bound to sound like a soap opera; rest assured, the film doesn't play like one. After Tommy (Burns) is thrown out of his apartment by his girlfriend, he quickly meets Maria (Rosario Dawson, Men in Black II) at his local video store. Maria is the ex-wife of doorman and aspiring musician, Ben (David Krumholtz, The Ice Storm). Ben is having difficulty letting go of Maria—though it was his infidelity that ended the marriage—but begins pursuing Ashley (Brittany Murphy, Don't Say A Word), a 19-year-old transplant from the Midwest working as a waitress in a diner. Ashley's having an affair with a middle-aged, serial-philanderer dentist named Griffin (Stanley Tucci, Big Night). Griffin's married to naïve and semi-prudish real estate agent, Annie (Heather Graham, Boogie Nights). [Editor's Note: waitaminute…Roller Girl? Prudish? Now that's range!] And Annie, of course, happens to be helping Tommy hunt for a new apartment. When things fizzle between Tommy and Maria, and Annie discovers her husband's infidelity, well…let's just say we end up with an answer to the question posed in the tagline.
This is the film from writer/director Edward Burns most distinguished for the delay of its theatrical release because of the terrorist events of September 11th. Presumably, Paramount believed the fact that "New York" is in the film's title and the twin towers appear as background in a couple shots would be too traumatic for the American viewing public. Here's Burns' defense, in the disc's commentary, for his refusal to change the title and omit or reshoot the material with the towers: "If someone in your family dies, you don't pretend like they never existed." Thank you, Mr. Burns. That is the simplest, most direct, and on-the-money rebuttal I've heard of Hollywood's hysterical post-11th handling of anything to do with New York as though she's a woman raped, sullied, and with whom they can't quite make eye contact. And Burns' film has the audicity to bask in its own New York-ness.
Okay, so it's fairly obvious that Woody Allen has been a major influence on the film career of Edwards Burns. The simple question is, how does Sidewalks of New York compare with strong entries in Allen's oeuvre? The answer: it doesn't. But it manages, nonetheless, to be a good movie on its own terms. It's not as narratively clever, culturally sophisticated, pyschologically insightful, or just plain funny as Allen's work. It's got its own charm, though. And it does have a dry, low-key sense of humor.
The film is nicely constructed. It's shot and edited documentary-style and, though we've seen these conventions (jump cuts, on-the-street interviews) used over and over, they work here. The circular nature of the narrative is, let's face it, highly stylized and artificial. The documentary-style places that artifice in a very naturalistic context, though, so it never feels like you're watching fake people moving through a fake scenario. Burns' ability to write solid, natural dialogue, avoiding cutesy, gee-the-screenwriter-must-be-smart cultural references and witticisms (he's funny without being self-congratulatory) is completely in tune with the documentary style.
Adding to the film's strengths are its performances. The lead ensemble cast does an excellent job, delivering performances that are subtle and ring true, imbuing their characters with a reality the film requires in order to succeed. Contributing strong supporting performances are Dennis Farina (Get Shorty) as Carpo, gold-chained lothario and host of the television show Tommy produces, as well as Nadia Dajani (Ned and Stacey) as Hilary, the cynical best friend who helps open Annie's eyes to her husband's cheating.
Where the film is weakest is Tucci's philandering dentist, Griffin. He's such a self-centered ass, he's not the least bit likable. As an audience, we're manipulated into wanting to see his ego deflated. And in the end, the film delivers. Griffin loses both girls and has any illusions he held about his own sexual prowess and the size of his manhood kicked out from under him. For a film that goes out of its way in not giving us clean, happily-ever-after endings for its characters, it all feels a bit contrived. On the other hand, there are jerks in the real world and a film shouldn't be constrained by having to show us redeeming sides of every single one of its characters. And Tucci's performance, which is as strong as anyone who's ever seen him act would expect, really carries Griffin. He manages to take a character who is little more than a pig and a plot device and play him like a real person—albeit an a-hole.
On the technical side of things, the transfer of the film is beautiful. It's presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and the source print was just about immaculate. Burns shot guerilla-style with tea lights and sometimes only available light, so the film's beauty is in its simplicity and organic vibe—colors are natural and run the spectrum from fairly cool and bright in some of the on-the-street material to warm and rich and draped in shadow in some of the interiors. The movie was shot on 35mm, so it delivers this wide tonal spectrum with a natural ease that doesn't leave the impression one is watching pieces of radically different photography.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital Surround and is perfectly adequate. It's not going to be the track you go to in order to demonstrate your new sound system for your friends, but this isn't that kind of movie. For me, the mark of a successful soundtrack for small, human films like this is when I don't notice it. If the dialogue is always crisp and discernable and seated in a natural ambient space so that I'm not conscious, while watching the movie, of how the sound was mixed, then it's a winner. That's what we've got here.
In the extras department, we have an Anatomy of a Scene documentary from the Sundance channel. I have to say, it packs a good amount of content into a 22-minute run time. The featurette includes input from Burns, cinematographer Frank Pinzi, producer Margot Bridger, Rosario Dawson, gaffer Marc Rogers, editor David Greenwald, and location manager Diane Norwood, whose presence is especially interesting since there was no production designer on the film—the entire thing was shot on location, each location carefully selected and left pretty much as-is instead of having a production designer come in and dress them with carefully selected objects.
There's also a feature-length commentary with Burns. It's focused primarily on methodology for making a very low-budget film (Sidewalks of New York cost less than a million bucks, and was shot in 17 days) that looks full and rich—it plays like a seminar for aspiring filmmakers. Burns talks a lot about how using the documentary style saved money. He admits to initially taking a very standard approach to shooting (two-shots, followed by close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots, et cetera) until Greenwald, who's had much experience editing documentaries, put dailies together using jump cuts and showed him how he could create as dynamic a film using less coverage. Though he never mentions the influence of Woody Allen, Burns does cite This is Spinal Tap and Waiting For Guffman as major stylistic influences on the film. It's also neat, and unexpected, to hear him talk about how seeing the efficiency with which Spielberg used hand-helds to film Saving Private Ryan first planted the idea in his head that that approach could do wonders in a small film. He provides interesting anecdotes, like the fact Dennis Farina worked one day on the film, and Stanley Tucci five (this, he notes, is the key to getting great actors to do low-budget work: if the material's strong and their time commitment is minimal, they're more likely to go for it). Burns' commentary style is easy-going and conversational. If there's one problem with the track, it's that it's so focused on the filmmaking-on-the-cheap subject matter that he begins to repeat himself. Having Greewald and/or Pinzi sit in with him likely would've improved things greatly. Still, it's pretty informative.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Don't be fooled by the disc's cover art and tagline. This is not a romantic comedy in the vein of When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle. It's more relationship film than boy-meets-girl. Personally, I like that, but I thought it was worth mentioning since Paramount is perhaps marketing the film as something it isn't.
Sidewalks of New York is an entertaining film, well worth an investment of your precious time. It's when we start talking about the investment of your precious dollars that we've got problems…or, more specifically, the classic Paramount problem: too high a price tag for the content offered. Suggested retail price for the disc is $29.99. Let me be blunt: that's outrageous. $21.00—the lowest price I was able to find on the web, with shipping included—is still a bit steep.
The film is acquitted of all charges. Paramount is found guilty of robbery. If you're such a big Edward Burns fan that you've got to own it, I recommend tracking it down at that $21.00 price. For everyone else, give it a rent.
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Scales of Justice
• Anatomy of a Scene Documentary
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