Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sidewalks of New York

Five minutes into Sidewalks of New York, Edward Burns has made better use of Dennis Farina and gotten more out of him than Law and Order managed in two seasons.

Eighty minutes in, Burns has made better use and gotten more out of most of his cast than any director who worked with them before or since.

Heather Graham, Stanley Tucci, David Krumholtz, Brittany Murphy, and Rosario Dawson---all deliver the most technically brilliant and difficult performances of their careers.

Great acting is usually a matter of making outrageously unbelievable characters believable, of turning gods and monsters into plausible human beings. Hamlet, set down in a real Denmark, would be a madman.

Or great acting is the trick of turning plausible human beings into gods and monsters. For all the "realistic" details Robert De Niro brought to his portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta, the brilliance of the performance was in the way De Niro disguised the ways he was thoroughly romanticizing La Motta, turning him into a heroic character worth watching for two hours. Had De Niro played the part truly realistically, no one would have gone to the movie because the real Jake La Motta wasn't much of a human being, let alone a hero.

Same goes for Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote. Hoffman didn't impersonate Capote. He idealized him. The real Truman Capote shrank on TV; he'd have been a dot on the horizon on a movie screen.

This isn't a criticism of De Niro, Hoffman, or great movie acting. It's just a fact of American movies. Americans make and prefer to watch Romantic movies, capital R Romantic. We like big, sweeping stories about beautiful, larger than life characters suffering beautifully or surviving beautifully or staring into the camera beautifully. So what the cast of Sidewalks of New York is called upon to do isn't often asked of American actors---play real human beings as real human beings.

If Stanley Tucci, terrific as he is, didn't always look like a caricature of whatever character he's playing in any given film, and if Burns hadn't cast himself---not that he's bad. He's just too good looking and too much himself. He can't hide the fact that he's acting because an important part of who he is is an actor---and you had never seen any of the others before, you might very well believe that they are what the narrative conceit of the movie would have you take them for: ordinary New Yorkers who somehow got talked into taking part in a documentary about their mixed-up love lives.

A documentary that for some reason requires the occasional show stopping presence of Dennis Farina, but nevermind.

This is especially true of Brittany Murphy, who could fool you even if you have seen her before, and, amazingly, Heather Graham---amazingly because Heather Graham is just too oddly and ethereally beautiful to be a real human being, yet in Sidewalks of New York, without doing much to downplay her beauty, she manages to play someone you could walk by on the street without giving a second glance. She comes across as just another modestly attractive neurotic businesswoman on her way to an appointment she'd rather skip.

Of course the movie takes more than a second glance at her and it isn't long before you notice that this woman is more than she appeared to be. But that's what you think, this woman. If you think of Heather Graham, you think, Wow, this woman looks a little bit like Heather Graham.

If you think some more, you might think, And she acts a little bit like Diane Keaton. I don't know if Graham was consciously doing an homage to Keaton. (She must have been. The character's named Annie, as in Hall, for crying out loud.) Either way, though, it doesn't come across as an actor's trick. It's as if her character had seen Manhattan or Annie Hall at a crucial time in her life and made Keaton her role model. If she thought she could get away with it, she'd say La di da. All the little Keatonisms have gone past mannerisms and become part of who she is.

Murphy, however, completely disappears into her character, creating a truly documenatarian portrait of the type of Midwestern kid with vague bohemian longings who comes to New York and in short order becomes more of New Yorker than people who were born and raised there. She plays a college student working as a waitress in a diner who hasn't any ambitions or particular talents beyond turning herself into the heroine of her own artistic and romantic drama, with no idea how to bring that about, which means that most of her life is spent waiting and drifting, making her easy prey for more selfishly ambitious types who want to make her part of their own psychodramas.

And, by the way, whoever gave her the fake leopard skin jacket to wear made a brilliant choice. Anyone who's spent time around artists, actors, and musicians has seen that jacket coming and going from a thousand parties and knows exactly what sort of lost soul is inside it.

The only unbelievable thing about Murphy's performance isn't her fault, the fact that she's having a tawdry affair with a dentist.

I understand why Burns didn't want to make Tucci's character what he would need to be to attact the likes of Murphy's character---a college professor, a writer, an actor or director, or, at the very farthest edge of bohemian types, a lawyer who once dreamed of being a writer, an actor, a director, or a painter---but a dentist?

No way does that jacket ever go home with a smock.

Sidewalks of New York doesn't have a plot as much as it has a structure, like an elaborate arrangement of dominos that circles back in on its own beginning and which is interesting for the patterns it reveals as the dominos knock each other down. The story, such as it is, is a contemporary La Ronde, with the cycle repeated eight times. One character's little bit of story arc knocks into the next, and that character carries us along to the next, and so on, until we get back to the first character, and the dominos get knocked over again.

Tommy (Burns), the producer of an Entertainment Tonight-like TV show, meets cute with Maria (Dawson), a schoolteacher, who's trying to get over her divorce from Ben (Krumholtz), a would-be rock and roll star working as a doorman, who puts the make on Ashley (Murphy), a college student from Iowa, who is sleeping with Griff (Tucci), a cad of married dentist, who is inexplicably out of love with his realtor wife, Annie (Graham), who is trying to help Tommy find a new apartment and is, not inexplicably, attracted to him.

As I said, all of these characters come across as real people, and their problems, foibles, flaws, missteps, miscues, and mistakes are painfully, if not as Burns might have liked, heartbreakingly, true to life. They would come across as more real if Burns hadn't been so literal with his conceit of making a documentary. Besides the fact that it's impossible to believe that Dawson's, Graham's, and Burns' characters would reveal themselves to a stranger's camera so completely, especially when all the questions are about their sex lives, all of the characters talk about themselves with too much honesty and directness (although with no real insight), sounding like they're cribbing from Letters to Playboy.

It would have been better if Burns had let the camera act...that is, if he'd just filmed the story as if it was a documentary in the making without forcing us to watch pieces of the actual documentary. Nothing that the characters have to say into the camera tells us anything they don't reveal in their scenes with each other.

But that's just a mistake that can be put up with. What's harder to overlook is that as real as these people are, their very real-ness makes them a problem for the audience. There's a reason more movies aren't about "real" people. Most real people aren't very interesting or likeable.

Ed Burns has a writer's sensibilities, in a lot of ways, and one of those ways is that he's not concerned with making his characters likeable. He wants us to see people for what they are. That's fine, it's in fact admirable, necessary even. But it works better in a short story than in an hour and a half movie.

I started by saying that Burns does more with Dennis Farina in five minutes than Law and Order managed to do in 44 episodes. As it turns out, five minutes is about all the screen time Farina gets. That's ok. Five minutes of his character, Croup, an aggressively narcissistic aging playboy, goes a long way.

But five minutes of all these characters goes a long way. Once we've met them, and realized that we have met them, that they are, if not people we know, people we could know, there's not much more to recommend them to our attention. None of them is particularly likeable. Tucci's dentist, Griff, isn't supposed to be, but his caddishness doesn't rise to the level of true villainy, and true villains are "likeable" in their way---they compel us to identify with them. And, although they are desperate for love, or at least affection, none of them has much of a heart.

They are all---but one---driven by ego and by ideas about what they should want and be, ideas that are for the most part second-hand, which means, that they are all the products of convention not self-invention. They are phony in the way real people are phony. They don't think for themselves. They say what they've been taught they're supposed to say, given the roles in life they've adopted for themselves. Graham's character talks as if she's aware of how she's limited by her background and upbringing, but it's all rote awareness. Women like her are supposed to disparage their own conventionality even as they cling to it.

Consequently, all of the characters are controlled by their appetites and emotions.

The one character who has any heart, the one character who thinks and who feels---in an active way. She reaches out to touch the world. The others wait for it to touch them. She thinks before she leaps. The others don't start thinking until they are in free fall, and then it's only to ask themselves, What the fuck?---the one character who cares about herself as person with a soul to worry about, is Dawson's schoolteacher, Maria.

Maria is the film's heroine. Its tragic heroine. Because she is the only character with a heart and a conscience, she can't drift in and out of love. She is having a hard time getting over her divorce, she is determined not to make the same mistake twice, and she is responsible. She and Tommy should fall in love and live happily ever after. They have a lot in common. They want the same things out of life. Tommy's a bit of a jerk, but he has enough self-awareness to know that about himself and not like it, and you can see how being with Maria could change him for the better. But he's careless and she's too careful and without meaning to, Maria keeps hurting his feelings because she's too busy protecting her own.

Maria's part of the story ends unhappily, although not unhopefully, because she is the only character who has a real future. The others are going to go on exactly as they've been. If we were to meet them 10 years down the line, their lives would look pretty much as they did at the beginning of Sidewalks of New York. They won't have changed or grown.

Whatever happens to Maria, for good or ill, she will have lived through it.

Another reason I wish that Burns had left out the documentary scenes is that it puts too much emphasis on the themes of love and sex and how the two complicate and get in each other's way.

Burns really doesn't have anything interesting or original to tell us on that score.

The more important theme at work in Sidewalks of New York is what is happening on the sidewalks everywhere---how every day thousands of isolated strangers pass each other by without any thought or notion that they are all as Dickens says in A Christmas Carol

For the most part, we remain isolated strangers. But every now and then our lives collide with someone else's. Our problems become theirs, our mistakes turn into their problems. We bump into a person and knock them down, figuratively or literally, and that person bumps into someone else, who bumps into someone else, and all these lives topple into each other like dominos, and without our even knowing it we've knocked down someone a dozen miles away, someone we've never met and never will meet.

Griff's carelessness hurts his wife and Ashley, obviously, but it also affects Maria, because it pushes Annie into Tommy's path. Ben's carelessness hurt Maria, obviously, but it hurts Tommy because it pushes Maria into his path while making her incapable of falling in love with him. And Tommy's carelessness has a serious impact on the life of someone who isn't even born when the movie ends.

The characters in Sidewalks in New York talk a lot---too much---about love and sex.

But love and sex are not what the movie's about, in its best moments.

In its best moments, it's about taking care.

Sidewalks of New York. Written and directed by Edward Burns. Starring Rosario Dawson, Stanley Tucci, Heather Graham, Brittany Murphy, David Krumholtz, Edward Burns, and Dennis Farina. 2001.


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