Interconnecting stories set during one sweltering summer day in each of the five boroughs of New York City, “Side Streets” is an entertaining mosaic of life in the multicultural melting pot that refreshingly paints its wide race-and-class canvas without getting mired in p.c. concerns. Ambitious, mostly successful first feature from New Yorker Tony Gerber is considerably overlong, and too unhurried about resolving its various strands. But when they are tied up , the conclusions have a warmth and spirit that is genuinely winning. Destined for perhaps only marginal theatrical exposure, this likable pic will make an impressive calling card for future directing work.
One of the stories here — about Romanian butcher’s apprentice and compulsive gambler Josif (David Vadim), who dreams of buying a storybook house in the suburbs for his wife (Mirjana Jokovic) — was originally the subject of director Gerber’s 1995 short film, “A Small Taste of Heaven,” which screened at Sundance. Gerber and co-writer Lynn Nottage here have fleshed out that Queens-set tale, dexterously embroidering it into a larger fabric.
In Manhattan, Eurotrash fashion designer Sylvie (Valeria Golino) struggles to emerge from the shadow of her celebrated mother, faces eviction from her Soho apartment and the dead end in her relationship, and latches onto a loose-cannon Japanese department store buyer (Miho Nikaido) in the hope of kickstarting her career.
Over on Staten Island, Indian limo driver Bipin (Art Malik) attempts to placate his frazzled wife (Shabana Azmi), who is fed up with being treated like a servant by Bipin’s visiting brother (Shashi Kapoor), a pompous former Bollywood star. In the Bronx, humble Puerto Rican baker’s daughter Marisol (Rosario Dawson) mistakenly sees her lover, Ramon (John Ortiz), as her escape route to a life of glamour and success.
The only comparatively weak story, which is perhaps a little heavy-handed in its comedic tone, concerns Errol and Brenda (Leon, Aunjanue Ellis), a young West Indian couple in Brooklyn whose marriage risks rupture when Errol hocks Brenda’s family heirlooms to buy a gold Cadillac.
Opening with a B&W 1950s newsreel advertising NYC as a microcosmic round-the-world trip, where different languages can be heard on every block, different cuisines can be sampled and different cultures have left their mark, Gerber goes on to illustrate this multiethnic feeling without laboring the point.
With a running time of more than two hours, the film clearly lacks economy. But even as the pace falters, the script’s equally affectionate embrace of every member of its large ensemble keeps the audience on its side. These people all are dissatisfied and dreaming of a better life, but even when they fail to achieve this, the tone is more often bittersweet and quietly optimistic than melancholy. The mechanics with which the stories are interwoven and the characters cross paths are fluidly executed, with editor Kate Williams deftly keeping all the narrative balls in the air throughout.
The entire cast is strong, but standout work comes from Golino, Vadim and, especially, Indian veteran Kapoor, whose role here contains ironic echoes of his own career. He plays the has-been star as both arrogant and deflated, dignified and pathetic, gradually shifting from understated comedy to pathos in the most poignant of the stories’ conclusions.
Coupled with a wide range of ethnic source music, Evan Lurie’s whimsical, lazily jazzy score, which incorporates a variety of influences, is a key factor in the pic’s agreeable, easy mood. Aside from some occasionally underlit scenes, production values are fine.