Is there such a thing as whimsical cynicism? If so, how much of it do you want to watch? Sidewalks of New York, the bombastically glib relationship comedy from writer-director Edward Burns, features a handful of battle-scarred romantics who, in the midst of breakups, pickups, crack-ups, shack-ups, lies, lurves, and delusions, take turns standing on the streets of Manhattan, chewing over their neurotic amours to an offscreen interviewer, who records the confessions via handheld camera and frisky jump cuts. It’s a veritable Greek chorus of wry therapeutic chatter, the touchy-feely pensées skittering over the stock dualities of adultery and fidelity, lust and devotion, narcissism and intimacy, blah, blah, blah.
If, like me, you’re a fan of Burns’ sharp-tongued comedies of masculine ego, ”The Brothers McMullen” and ”She’s the One,” it’s no great pleasure to see him employ a device lifted so flagrantly from Woody Allen’s ”Husbands and Wives.” What’s even more dismaying, though, is that when we actually see the characters in ”Sidewalks of New York” living their lives, coupling and uncoupling in their search for that mystical perfect partner, the movie offers…identical variations on the same Ed Burns-goes-Oprah confessional chatter. The ”relationships” consist of nothing more than the ongoing analysis of relationships. The actors are appealing, but the people they’re playing appear to have been body-snatched by love.
Heather Graham, in tiny-framed smart-girl glasses, is a real estate agent who has taken too long to discover that her rat-fink husband, played by an unctuously insincere Stanley Tucci, has no compunction about cheating on her. His latest conquest is a 19-year-old East Village coffee-shop waitress, played by Brittany Murphy impersonating Meg Ryan’s vulnerable kid sister. She’s hung up on older men, so she doesn’t recognize that a doofy young doorman (David Krumholtz) is the fellow for her. Boyish but divorced, he’s still clinging to his ex-wife (Rosario Dawson), a sexy sixth-grade teacher who hooks up with the earnest infotainment producer (played by Burns) she meets in a video store.
The characters in ”Sidewalks of New York” look and move and self-deprecate like real humans, yet there’s a lack of personalized obsession to their ticker-tape yearnings. You never feel they’ve been torn from the filmmaker’s experience. Maybe that’s because the Ed Burns who made this movie can no longer pretend to be the Long Island Joe Average who poured his soul into ”The Brothers McMullen.” Now he’s trying to imagine the way the rest of us live. He’d be better off if he stuck to deconstructing Eddie.