If you've seen one of the semi-autobiographical romantic comedies directed by and starring Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen, She's the One), you've had occasion to wonder how this Long Island-bred drama-club veteran has managed to keep a Hollywood career. Now, with Burns's fourth feature, Sidewalks of New York, comes a plausible theory: Is it because the kid has made a habit of spraying a little cologne on his balls?
I should explain. In Sidewalks of New York, the 33-year-old Irish-Catholic-American ladies' man plays Tommy Riley, an overbearing "outer-borough guy" who's now a Manhattan player courtesy of his soul-sucking work on a tabloid TV show. (Burns himself, in a rare case of talent finding its home from the get-go, toiled for four years as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight.) Booted from his apartment by a girlfriend unwilling to bear his kids, Tommy shacks up temporarily with an older colleague named Carpo (Dennis Farina), a leathery skirt-chaser who brags of having "porked" some 500 women, and who offers advice on dating from the comfort of his own Jacuzzi. "Give those bad boys a spritz," urges Carpo, "and she'll love it."
And does it work? Well, let's just say that by the close of Burns's peculiarly fragrant La Ronde, the young stud has impregnated one woman (Rosario Dawson) and attracted another (Heather Graham)--the latter having endured years of marriage to a man (Stanley Tucci) with a legendarily underwhelming (and presumably unscented) package. When it comes to making it big, the film suggests, a well-placed whiff of class can't hurt. Still, as further proven by Burns's offscreen affair with Graham (amply covered on Entertainment Tonight!), that blessed luck of the Irish is what truly separates the men from the boys.
To be fair, Burns may also have benefited from the climate at Sundance in 1995--if not from the effect of high altitudes upon rational decision-making. Sold in Park City to the upstart Fox Searchlight Pictures for a reported $1.5 million, Burns's benign Brothers McMullen came at a time post-Pulp Fiction when every other indie protagonist was either packing heat or flashing vampire teeth, and every other indie auteur was cracking mirrors with his reflection when not celebrating his release from video-store or quicky-mart purgatory with a tall stack of Seventies horror laserdiscs and a case of cold Schlitz. In this context, Burns struck Hollywood acquisitions execs as refreshingly Normal: upwardly mobile, unambiguously straight, aspirant of Robert Redford's approval, eager to write about "universal" subjects, and handsome enough to headline a studio picture if the situation required. Indeed, the Fox-funded, Redford-produced follow-up found Burns casting himself as "the only English-speaking white guy driving a cab in New York" while refusing even one person of color to cross the squeaky clean frame. No matter that the cabbie's vehicle tanked: It was precisely what people in power appeared to want at the twilight of the Amerindie revolution.
And now it's dusk. If Burns's No Looking Back (1998) read as his own Jackie Brown--that is, as a macho film buff's unexpectedly sensitive portrait of a working woman who yearns to trade her drab life for a new one--then Sidewalks signals a return to the straight and narrow. As sloppy as McMullen, but lacking the excuses that come with a $25,000 budget, Burns's latest stab at romantic realism contrives a ludicrous documentary device to allow a steady supply of jump cuts (and even invites one non-white actor into the ensemble!). Though the filmmaker's press kit has the nerve to name-drop Antonioni, his self-described "weird experiment" is only odder than Woody Allen circa 1992 for how strongly it reeks of cheap cologne splashed on unwashed cojones. Clearly, size matters in the cinema of Edward Burns: I mean, no New York actor-director ever framed himself aside the Twin Towers just to evoke a sense of place. But what's between the ears here can't even be measured.
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