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Curb this dog

Ed Burns channels Woody to ill effect in Sidewalks of NY

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We are in deep trouble when chronicler of Blarney Stone-angst Ed Burns turns to Woody Allen's patented territory, especially at a time when Woody Allen seems unable to do Woody Allen anymore. Sidewalks of New York, Burns' sex comedy about the heartaches and adulteries of some interconnected Manhattanites, feels like the young director's attempt to shirk the collegiate existentialism of his earlier films and head uptown to grownupsville.

The kid from Queens has moved to the more rarefied environs of the Upper Eastside, but the remnants of Burns' regular guy Irish-American kid remain. Perhaps the problem is Burns' tenuous rendering of what constitutes "adult" in a country that has elected Britney Spears its sex-symbol of choice. While once it was adult films like Last Tango in Paris or Carnal Knowledge that dared to lift propriety's skirt and tackle sexual malaise, our culture now celebrates juvenile snickering a la American Pie around talk of dicks, sexual flings and affairs with your gynecologist. Though the conventions of Allen's analytical bedroom follies are in place, Burns is less slick with such material that only points out the blatantly adolescent, posturing machismo of obsessive panty-sniffing.

For reasons known only to Burns, the shape of Sidewalks assumes the dimensions of a documentary -- handheld camerawork, jump cuts, sudden zooms -- perhaps because the director associates the form with more cerebral adult concerns. Characters are introduced in sidewalk interviews talking -- to some never-seen director -- about the first time they lost their virginity, and then check in regularly to offer new details of their evolving (or devolving) love lives. But all the shaky camerawork and direct-camera address in the world wouldn't give this canned material the ring of truth.

The characters themselves feel stale and familiar. Likable Stanley Tucci is suddenly distinctly unlikable as randy dentist Griffin, who, even though he should drop to his knees nightly to thank God for being married to gorgeous Annie (Heather Graham), screws around with a dim-bulb waitress Ashley (Brittany Murphy). Burns is the decent outer borough guy-made-good Tommy who falls for hottie schoolteacher Maria (Rosario Dawson). And David Krumholtz is the nebbish doorman Ben, now divorced from the schoolteacher and in love with the waitress. And so the canting merry-go-round with the woozy calliope lurches forward.

In keeping with Woody Allen convention, the women are across the board stunning, and the generally unappealing, too-hairy or not-hairy enough men come up to their statuesque navels. Also glomming onto Allen's notion that feuding-equals-passion, Burns offers a fairly fractious view of romance, and centers almost all of his romantic bits of business on petty disagreements or raging arguments between his lovers. Such confrontations stand in for action or insight, and only create little conflagrations of drama that ignite and then fizzle.

The characters are fairly recognizable types: Graham is the Upper Eastside debutante with a wardrobe of pashminas who never quite convinces as a silver spoon princess; Murphy is the flaky waitress with the frazzled Meg Ryan locks and mannerisms; and Tucci is the self-involved, sex-crazed married man. The only character who livens things up is Tommy's middle-aged mentor Carpo (Dennis Farina). A lady killer with tanning-bed skin who advocates genitalia-perfume to attract the ladies, Farina is the only one who has some fun with Burns' cartoonish conception of his characters.

While Woody Allen's schtick is a strutting intellectualism and characters who pontificate about high-falutin matters, Burns' metier is Catholic integrity and the blue-collar pride of a regular joe from the outer boroughs who never lets his fellow Manhattanites forget it's people like him who built the city.

And while Allen seems to delight and wallow in the vanities and vices of his characters, Burns seems to take a moral approach, punishing the cads for their bad behavior and rewarding the princes. Allen aims to impress and draw his audience closer, allowing them to bask in the reflected glow of his cultural references, while Burns' address is to the humble guys simply looking for a good apartment or a babe like Annie. But what could be so endearingly humble and occasionally romantic in early efforts like The Brothers McMullen gets lost in the Husbands and Wives-derivative thicket of the feeble Sidewalks.

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