The problem with Edward Burns directing a movie about the lives and loves of real people is that he’s not a real person any more. He’s a movie star and a major player in the film industry, as illogical and sad as that may be to those who’ve seen his four singularly underwhelming movies and wondered why he’s at Spago while they’re still in the corner booth at Denny’s.
Actually, Hollywood is a state of mind in addition to a town, so Ed was probably living at Sunset and Vine long before The Brothers McMullen, his emperor-with-no-clothes romantic comedy that improbably took Sundance by storm several years ago.
Then, he was a former Entertainment Tonight production assistant. Now, he’s got all the trappings of a man whose life no longer depends on a paycheck, love or friendship. In addition to the parties, the self-serving interviews and the bad acting choices, he’s already used and discarded former girlfriend and co-star Heather Graham, the Hollywood equivalent of one of those mechanical rocking horses in front of Kmart.
As we see in Burns’ new film, Sidewalks of New York, he’s got no more feel for the real-life problems of this world than anybody else whose dry-cleaning, The Zone meals and hookers get picked up by their personal assistant. This roundabout romantic comedy follows the lives and implausible interactions of six New Yorkers in a form and style Woody Allen bypassed more than a decade ago. He’s swiped so many devices from Woody, including the talking-to-the-camera stuff from Crimes and Misdemeanors, that Woody should get an executive producer credit.
The de facto main character is Tommy (Burns), whose great success in television hasn’t deprived him of heart, soul or spectacular clothes. You get the feeling Tommy is the way Ed figures his life would have turned out if his first film hadn’t been a hit. He’s cool, he’s virile and he doesn’t make a single mistake in the entire film. Yeah, everybody can relate.
For some reason, somebody is making a documentary about the relationships between the six main characters of this film. That allows Ed to shoot confessionals in which the characters talk about their first time, their last time or any other relationship bonbon. If you thought Ed’s filmmaking was self-obsessed before, just wait until you see the monologues from Graham, who plays a sweetie real-estate broker married to a sleazy dentist (Stanley Tucci) who’s banging a 19-year-old naïf from Iowa (Brittany Murphy) who’s the object of an uncomfortable crush from Benny (David Krumholtz), a doorman who also still loves his ex-wife (Rosario Dawson), who runs into Tommy at the video store one night.
As a love letter to New York City during this difficult time, Serendipity functions infinitely better. The shots of the World Trade Center that Burns has chosen to leave in his film seem less like an affirmation and more like a denial. In this fantasy world where really hot women can’t find a guy who wants to commit to them—and where Ed Burns is a genial, lovely guy who’s just dying to make a commitment—the towers never fell, he seems to say.
It’s not that Ed is completely without talent. He writes a half-dozen good lines that probably could be stretched into something more than this with the proper script doctor. Overall, he keeps things moving quickly and breezily, and behind the camera, he’s un-ambitious but confident. Though his previous two films (She’s the One and No Looking Back) were joyless, time-wasting disasters, perhaps this latest picture would have been less tedious if Woody hadn’t already strip-mined the territory Ed seems determined to visit.
The whole film just smacks of inauthenticity. Theoretically, it exists because Ed thinks it’s a vital document detailing the love, uncertainty and joy in our interactions. In reality, it exists because Ed wanted to make another movie, whether or not he had anything to say. He’s a big-time Hollywood player, so he can do that. It doesn’t mean we have to watch, though.
Sidewalks of New York (R) H1/2 Directed by Edward Burns. Starring Edward Burns, Heather Graham and Rosario Dawson.