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Former "McMullen" Bro' Ed Burns travels well-worn, Woody-Allen-style comic pathways for this second-string Big Apple romance. 

Six in the City

If you've never seen Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," you'll probably enjoy Edward Burns' "Sidewalks of New York" more than someone who's experienced Allen's 1991 flirtation with off-kilter, hand-held camerawork, and mockumentary-style interviews exploring the intimate ins and outs of Manhattan marriages.

In style and substance, "Sidewalks" could almost be considered a remake, albeit a very weak effort. Now, here's the tough part: "Sidewalks," as derivative and shallow as it is, is easily Burns' most watchable work since his debut with the 1995 Sundance hit, "The Brothers McMullen." This latest also almost makes you forget his glum 1998 independent miasma called "No Looking Back."

Wearing four hats for "Sidewalks," writer-director-producer-actor, Burns delivers one of the smoother performances in his movie.

Burns' character, a successful but frustrated Queens television reporter named Tommy, is at the center of this Allenesque romantic roundelay of neurotic twentysomethings preoccupied with, as one character describes it, "love and sex and stuff." The tangling of tangential stories and characters begins when Tommy gets dumped by his longtime girlfriend.

Looking for a place to live, Tommy begins pursuing Annie (Heather Graham), a gorgeous real estate agent who happens to be married. Her husband, Griffin (Stanley Tucci), is a smarmy dentist carrying on with Ashley (Brittany Murphy, who seems to be in every movie lately), a New York University student young enough to be his daughter.

But Ashley really has her eye on Benjamin (David Krumholtz), a doorman and aspiring musician, who's secretly stalking his estranged wife, Maria (Rosario Dawson), a teacher who becomes interested in the ambivalent Tommy. Whew! It's not so much that you need a score card to keep up with who's who and who's doing who, but rather that you really don't care. We've seen these neurotic, hapless types before in any number of better, funnier, more insightful and even more heartfelt Woody Allen films. Watching "Sidewalks" is much like skimming through a cinematic Cliff's Notes on Allen where the essence of the master is invoked but not his "reel" truth.

While Burns the director may be too infatuated with jump-cuts and jerky camera setups, Burns the writer — and Burns the actor to a lesser degree — frequently steps in to save a scene. Burns' script is sharpest when Tommy's womanizing boss and mentor, Carpo (Dennis Farina), offers the most hilariously awful advice on baggin' babes.

Burns and cast handle the limited emotions well, with Dawson (Yes, the "Josie & The Pussycats" Dawson) giving the strongest performance. While all of Burns' characters are hung up about the same things — broken relationships, personal insecurity, fear of commitment — Dawson's Maria is the one character who breaks out of Burns' imposed mannerisms. Graham impresses in a completely different way. So effectively does she bury her sex-kitten image to portray the repressed Annie, that you almost won't recognize her. As Tommy, Burns gives us his usual bangs-flicking, cute-but-aw-shucks-shy hunk turn. And poor Stanley Tucci is stuck having to play a nasty, thoroughly disgusting character. As terrific an actor as Tucci is, even he can't do much with this black hole of a human being.

Now, it's not that "Sidewalks of New York" isn't fitfully watchable. I mean, how could it not be with more than a half-dozen characters all venting to each other and an unseen off-camera interviewer about their romantic and sexual desires? But dramatically and conceptually, the movie just sits there — flat and unfocused. "Sidewalks" wears out its welcome fast because of its artistic pretensions and self-absorbed characters, both in front of and behind the camera.

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