Sidewalks of New York (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Sidewalks of New York,” written and directed by Ed Burns, is the kind of picture for audiences who love to listen to interesting people talking about their lives—specifically, what they think of the idea of love versus what it actually is; how they perceive relationships and how it ought to work; how they define sex and how it relates to their own definition of happiness or contentment. The work does not offer the expected three-act structure which is appropriate given its faux-documentary feel. Rather, it employs a freewheeling approach, warm and always welcoming, daring to draw a smile on those willing to look closely and listen. It is not demanded that we judge, but it asks that we relate.
Credit to the casting by Ali Farrell and Laura Rosenthal for choosing effortlessly charismatic performers who are also capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions especially during closeups when the camera aims to capture every bit of tic and twitching of facial muscles. Every person we meet is a curiosity in some way. Although there is interconnection among them, it is refreshing that they do not all meet by the end, forced into a ludicrous situation by a tired setup. Its restraint in handling how the story is presented is quite admirable. Similar works within the sub-genre has shown it is difficult to balance a laidback attitude while maintaining a consistent forward trajectory. Not once does it lose its way.
Particularly intriguing among the strong batch of actors is David Krumholtz, portraying a Jewish doorman named Ben who is convinced he has found love (Brittany Murphy) after having been divorced (Rosario Dawson). In a way, the character represents young idealism; he goes after what he perceives to be love with great enthusiasm and boundless energy, like a puppy given freedom to play and roam at a park on a holiday weekend. But observe closely and recognize his greatest fear: that his life would constantly be defined by the divorce that permanently destroyed a part of him. An important detail of the character is his penchant for music of the past. What is music but love in melody form?
Burns’ screenplay makes numerous smart choices. I enjoyed that even the most unlikable character, played by Stanley Tucci, is given dimension. Yes, the dentist is a womanizer, cheating on his wife (Heather Graham) with a nineteen-year-old waitress (Murphy) at every opportunity, so brazen and obvious about it that everyone at his workplace knows that his “lunch hour” is really a “quickie” trip to a hotel, but the character is shown under a tragic light, too. It is not necessary that we like him; however, it is crucial that we recognize the sadness not only in his situation, especially that he isn’t getting any younger, but also in his desperation. Clearly, he is not built to be in a monogamous relationship and yet he forces himself to fit within such a box. Griffith, so convinced he is always in control, is a product of his environment more than he realizes or care to admit. While some viewers may detest him for his actions, I felt pity for him.
The aforementioned extremes show why the movie works. It does not attempt to write a rulebook on relationships or its trials and tribulations. Rather, the picture is concerned with excavating details from underneath the surface, just like how Burns hopes that the audience comes to appreciate New York not just through its reputation or word-of-mouth but in actually looking at the small details like graffitis on walls, diverse groups of people walking down the street, the noises in the background. It is both a contemporary comedy and a love letter to a place and community that the writer-director clearly loves and respects.