Edward Burns’ new ensemble piece is probably the worst Woody Allen movie that Woody never made. “Sidewalks of New York” is so utterly derivative of Allen’s earlier films–and so cruelly incapable of mustering even a fraction of their wit or style–that one leaves it angry rather than exhilarated. As a would-be romantic comedy-drama, it’s supposed to charm our socks off but merely makes us grit our teeth in impatience and annoyance.
What Burns is aiming for is a lighthearted but incisive roundelay about relationships in the contemporary Big Apple, but “Sidewalks” is so clumsily written and constructed that it’s more like a busted carousel that lurches around, wheezing and clattering, in stops and starts. At the center of it all is Tommy (Burns), a TV producer who’s recently broken up with his girlfriend and is searching for a new apartment. His peregrinations bring him into contact with two attractive women: Maria (Rosario Dawson), a divorced schoolteacher still pined after by her nerdy but sweet musician-doorman ex Ben (David Krumholtz), and Annie (Heather Graham), an obviously repressed rental agent who’s being two-timed by her scoundrel husband, dentist Griffin (Stanley Tucci). Griffin is having an affair with Ashley (Brittany Murphy), an affable waitress who also catches Ben’s eye. It’s wondering about what couplings these six characters will eventually wind up in that’s supposed to provide us with flashes of amusement and even insight.
That never happens, however, because the writing is limp, the narrative poorly constructed, and the direction utterly heavy-handed. There are innumerable irritating elements from a purely technical standpoint: jerky hand-held shots that create waves of viewer nausea, clumsy edits that insert intrusive jumps in what would ordinarily be continuous pans, and the tactic of interrupting the action with phony “interviews” in which the characters make brutally explicit what’s obvious about them already. But as problematic as these are, they pale into insignificance beside the simply absurd contrivance of having the six leading characters, who on the surface have little to do with one another, just coincidentally come together into a tight little group in a city of twelve million people. (Even if we buy that Tommy accidentally bumps into Maria, is it plausible that he should also encounter Annie, whose husband just happens to be romancing the girl with whom Maria’s ex will become independently involved?) Still, we might be willing to overlook the unlikelihood of the links if Burns provided his characters with dialogue that was anything other than banal, or with scenes that were either charming or truthful. But he doesn’t. Everything in “Sidewalks” seems forced and phony, so that when an unexpected pregnancy lands on one of the women with all the subtlety of a ton of stork feathers, the revelation comes as merely the crudest of the melodramatic devices Burns seizes upon in a futile attempt to infuse his story with some false depth.
The trivial material isn’t elevated by the cast. Burns tries desperately hard to be ingratiating but remains a cipher, Graham is as usual monotonous, Dawson is resolutely unimpressive, Murphy once again comes across as pretty but forgettable, and Krumholtz merely runs through his standard shtick of bumbling amiability. Ordinarily reliable, Tucci is reduced to the most shrill, obvious tricks as Annie’s cad of a spouse. In fact, the only person who adds any spark to the proceedings is Dennis Farina, who plays (or more properly overplays) the host of the show Tommy produces, a preening poseur who considers himself a ladies’ man. The role’s a caricature, of course, but at least Farina does it with gusto. Technically the picture is at best mediocre, shot on location without any sense of style. Some of Burns’ “interview” monologues, incidentally, are filmed against the backdrop of the World Trade Towers (a circumstance that doubtlessly caused the delay in the film’s release), but that no longer seems either shocking or inappropriate.
Far more depressing is the emptiness of the movie that features the now-destroyed structures. The title may be “Sidewalks of New York,” but the picture is more redolent of what sloshes by, unseen, beneath the pavement.