Edward Burns’ Sidewalks of New York , from his own screenplay, features several stirring moments of the pre-9/11 World Trade Center standing bravely in the background of a cinéma vérité interview with Mr. Burns. This accidental recording of a sadly vanished past is alone almost worth the price of admission to this Manhattan roundelay of several married and single searchers after sex, cuddly companionship and lasting commitment. Unfortunately, Mr. Burns is not as sure-footed with the treacherous terrain of Manhattan as he was with the outer-borough, blue-collar, largely Irish-Catholic world of his first and still best film, The Brothers McMullen (1995). Mr. Burns has always worked with limited means to bring his piquant romances to the screen, and one would like to encourage his efforts, if only to scold that increasingly vague entity labeled “Hollywood.” There is nothing Hollywoody about Mr. Burns, and indeed, he brandishes a title on the screen announcing that his film was made in the U.S.A.-aside from exhibiting patriotism, perhaps meaning to take a dig at the many independent films which use a lower-cost Toronto as a stand-in for New York.
Still, there’s nothing amateurish about the cast Mr. Burns has assembled for his overextended bit of whimsy. Mr. Burns plays Tommy, a celebrity-news television producer who looks down on his lucrative employment and bad-mouths it at every opportunity. After being thrown out of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, he moves in with Carpo (Dennis Farina), his mentor, a self-proclaimed legendary seducer of women who advises Tommy to douse his testicles with cologne when he goes out on a date. This kind of coarseness is sprinkled throughout the dialogue, as if to regale a juvenile audience with dirty, sexy talk. I don’t recall Mr. Burns ever being this desperate before. The problem here is that the characters talk about sex and little else all the time, and yet the movie is not at all sensual, suspended as it is in a perpetually post-coital sourness.
Tommy eventually becomes involved with two women. First is Maria (Rosario Dawson), a divorced school teacher who has the most poignant role; Tommy’s second affair, with Manhattan blueblood Annie (Heather Graham), is about to begin when the picture ends. Annie is also about to divorce her lying male-chauvinist pig of a husband, Griffin (Stanley Tucci), who’s a balding dentist besides. Griffin is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a hissable villain in a Burns movie, given to making sexist comments in clusters as he beds down ingénue-ish Iowan Ashley (Brittany Murphy), who waits tables while attending N.Y.U. Griffin lies to Annie about his affair with Ashley so clumsily that the audience begins to get restive over her seemingly limitless credulity. Indeed, when she finally tells Griffin to hit the road, the audience cheered with palpable relief.
When Ashley sees the light and walks out on Griffin, she accepts the attentions of Ben (David Krumholtz), a doorman pursuing a career in a rock band. Ben is closer to Ashley’s age than the middle-aged Griffin, and when Ben first meets him he asks Ashley if Griffin’s her father-after which the “older man” insults fly thick and fast from both Ben and Ashley, reaching some sort of climax when Ashley refers facetiously to Ben’s large endowment, sending Griffin into a frenzied flight of penis envy that becomes a running joke.
The largely friendly audience at the screening I attended is a story in itself. I was told that it was a critic’s screening set to begin at the AMC 42nd Street Theater at 7:30 p.m., which would enable me to attend the end of a dinner party downtown. In the theater in the stratosphere, I waited till about 8:15 for what turned out to be a benefit for a foundation concerned with the victims of 9/11. People made speeches, and Ed Burns himself got up to thank all the people who helped him bring Sidewalks of New York to the screen. Joe Torre was in the audience in the flesh, and that was nice. On this night, though, Ed Burns was the kind of celebrity his character on the screen demeans. On this night of nights, they certainly weren’t going to give me a frank audience appraisal of the picture.
My own instinct tells me that Sidewalks of New York doesn’t work and doesn’t go anywhere, but there are a few talented performers on display, and I can’t blame Mr. Burns for keeping his hand in as an outer-borough person who made good. His character even makes a prophetic speech that returns the film to its roots in the kind of people we’ve been honoring ever since Sept. 11.
What’s in a Name?
Jacques Demy’s Lola , from his own screenplay, originally came out in 1961, but it didn’t enjoy the cresting popularity of the other works loosely grouped around the rubric “the Nouvelle Vague.” Mr. Demy was three years away from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), which would establish his reputation in France-though not in New York, where audiences and critics howled at the intrusion of an Esso gas station into a romantic fantasy. As for Anouk Aimée, the star of Lola , she was five years away from Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (1966), which would make her an international star.
Mr. Demy dedicated his film to Max Ophüls, and at the time I thought he was thinking of Martine Carol’s Lola Montès in Ophüls’ 1955 commercial disaster. But in later years, Mr. Demy said that he was thinking of Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952). There are also references to Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930). The idea is the same: the woman who sells her body without selling her soul. The Lola of Mr. Demy and Ms. Aimée performs in a smoky Nantes cabaret, where she encounters an old sweetheart, Roland (Marc Michel), and goes to bed with an American sailor, Frankie (Alan Scott), all the while waiting seven years for the return of her child’s father. There is something gentle and elusive going on here, and you should catch the movie at long last even if you’ve seen it before.